In Turin, Italy, hundreds of young people gathered around a television March 14 to hear the Holy Father speak about an unpopular topic nowadays: the cross. With them was a large cross they had been carrying all day. Young people of the dioceses of Italy were taking the cross on a pilgrimage that ends Palm Sunday, when they enter Rome to celebrate World Youth Day in a vivid reminder of Christ's entry into Jerusalem.

The gathering for the television broadcast took place March 14, Laetare Sunday, named for the Latin of the day's entrance antiphon at Mass. With it, the Church encourages her faithful in the midst of their pilgrimage through the sacrificial season of Lent: “Rejoice (Laetare), Jerusalem! Be glad for her, you who love her; rejoice with her, you who mourned for her, and you will find contentment at her consoling breasts.”

This jubilant scene in Turin was a foretaste of what the World Youth Day in Rome would look like two weeks later. There, the crowds and their cross would be all the more remarkable compared to the other pursuits — good enough in themselves, but lacking any acknowledgment of the Cross — that young people would be engaged in around the world this Palm Sunday:

—In New Zealand, high school students who make it to the grand finale of the Great Asian Cook-Off will compete nationally for the first-place prize.

—In Cuba, the Baltimore Orioles will play an exhibition game, lauded as a sign of new openness in the country, which will rivet the attention of base-ball's many young fans there.

—And in Gunstock, Mass., snowboarders, skiers and mountain bikers will compete in a downhill obstacle-course race that the Boston Globe promises will be “wild and weird, so snowboarders will like it.”

Truly, as Pope John Paul II told his young audience on Laetare Sunday, “life is meaningless without the Cross.” The meaning of life has been much on the Church's mind these 40 days — occasioned by the Lenten meditation on the meaning of death — a meditation that the world, with its constant pursuit of distractions, shrinks from making.

The Pope began Lent with a meditation on the Ash Wednesday words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” He said that for man, death is “a reality he must constantly face,” but “is nevertheless not a primordial truth. … It did not exist in the beginning, but as the sad consequence of sin, it entered the world through the devil's envy.” He also recalled other words: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” which he said is possible because “human death was defeated by the death of Christ.”

Only faith can properly contemplate death. The culture that has brought us abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide and other manifestations of death does not understand death at all. When the Pope addressed the Pontifical Academy for Life on “Love and Solidarity for the Dying” Feb. 27, he pointed out that this “culture of death” is dependent on various attitudes that consistently ignore death.

Among them is what he called the “culture of well-being” which he said, “often involves an inability to see life's meaning in the situations of suffering and debilitation that accompany human beings as they approach death.” Then there is the “principle of self-determination,” whereby the individual cuts himself off from others to autonomously pursue his own satisfaction. Last, there is a “utilitarian ethic which governs many advanced societies according to the criteria of productivity and efficiency.”

This approach to life ends by embracing forms of hasty death, because it leaves no room for hope — which is also to say that it leaves no room for pain. It understands only pleasure, license and material success, and when these are lacking, life has no more meaning.

The youth of Italy's dioceses heard a very different message on Laetare Sunday.

“It is the Resurrection that reveals the true value of the Cross. … It is not a sign of death, but of life; not of frustration, but of hope; not of defeat, but of victory. Indeed as an ancient liturgical hymn says, the cross of Christ is our ‘only hope,’ for any other promise of salvation is deceptive, since it does not resolve the fundamental human problem: the problem of evil and death.

“This is why Christians venerate the cross and recognize it as the sign par excellence of love and hope. Young people too, oriented by nature to life, embrace the cross of Jesus like Francis of Assisi and all the saints because they understand that the mystery of life would be a meaningless riddle without it. …

“To [the young people] that have joined us by television I offer a special greeting and say: Do not be afraid to welcome the cross of Christ into your life!”

The Pope concluded with a call to bring this message to their peers around the world.

“The Cross, the sign of salvation and the banner of final victory, is the witness, dear young people, which you must receive from the generations that have gone before you, so that you can carry it into the third millennium as true apostles of the Gospel.”

Tom Hoopes is Executive Editor of the Register.