Pope Tells Rome: 'Prepare for Jubilee 2000'

ROME-Pope John Paul II called for “a spirit of cooperation” among the citizens of Rome, as the Italian capital and the Vatican began their two-year countdown to the Holy Year 2000. Making a landmark visit to City Hall, the Pope said the Eternal City must “set an example for the whole world” during celebrations for the new millennium.

“Dear Romans, it is for good reason that we define this day as historic,” he said Jan. 15 in the city's Capitol Square. “Together we are writing another page full of projects and hopes in the annals of Rome-civil and spiritual capital to which all of humanity looks.”

During the two-hour stop at the seat of Rome's city government, the Pope addressed the mayor, the city council, and some of the capital's oldest and youngest citizens. Yet, he made it clear his visit had one aim: to foster collaboration between the city and Church in preparations for the Jubilee Year.

“Rome must show itself both inwardly and externally renewed when the Jubilee arrives; the city must be a beacon of civilization and faith,” the Pontiff stressed. “May you rise to the heights of your glorious past for the occasion.”

The Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 is arguably the biggest organizational effort now under way anywhere. Officials note that unlike the Olympic Games or huge international conferences, the Jubilee is a yearlong event.

Conservative estimates say it's due to bring more than 21 million visitors to Rome-more than double the current annual average. Celebrations will concurrently be held in the Holy Land and in local Churches throughout the world.

Rome's mayor Francesco Rutelli assured Pope John Paul II, the city “will be ready.” He said his administration had already launched many projects to improve transportation and tourist accommodations in time for the year 2000.

City officials will primarily be responsible for transporting, sheltering, informing, and feeding the expected multitudes of pilgrims. The mayor did not hide the fact that the scope of Holy Year celebrations has posed challenges.

“The preparations and development for the biggest jubilee in history will also generate discomfort,” he admitted in his speech to the Pope and a special session of the city council. The increased flow of people, Rutelli said, will put the city to “a tough test.”

For his part, Pope John Paul II urged “civil and Christian Rome” to unite in their “desire to show the city's best face” during the Holy Year.

It is “the duty of Christians to renew and purify the face of the Church,” he said. Yet the Pope noted that civil authorities also have a special obligation-in light of Rome's relationship to Christian history-to ensure that its citizens “experience the grace of the Jubilee in an exemplary way” with “a quality of life worthy of humanity.”

The papal visit to City Hall was a high-profile event. Posters publicizing the occasion appeared on buses and billboards two weeks prior, and the trip itself was broadcast live on national television.

As surprising as it may seem, it was the first time in his more than 19-year pontificate that Pope John Paul II traveled the one mile distance from the Vatican to the Capitoline Hill on which the municipal complex rests. It also represented only the second visit by a pope to City Hall since Rome became the capital of Italy in 1870.

Pope Paul VI stopped there briefly in 1966 to thank the city for helping host the Second Vatican Council. That visit unofficially marked a thaw in relations between the Holy See and Rome following the confiscation of the Papal States in the 1800's and the subsequent retiring of the papacy to the Vatican.

Yet today, Church relations with the city are cordial; Roman officials are working closely with the Vatican in preparing for the Holy Year and other projects of mutual interest.

In his speech to the mayor and city councilors, Pope John Paul II touched on the many changes which have taken place in Rome.

“How many transformations have characterized this city through the ages,” he asked rhetorically. “From the capital of the Papal States to capital of the Italian state. From a city enclosed within the Aurelian Walls to a metropolis of nearly three million residents. From a homogenous community to a multiethnic community in which, besides Catholics, there live people of other creeds and also people whose vision of life is nonreligious,” he said.

The Pontiff, who is also Bishop of Rome, said his appreciation of the city's people has grown steadily throughout the years. During visits to 265 of Rome's 328 parishes, the Pope said, he has seen signs of “a concrete love” that freely offers moral and material support to the needy.

After his speech, the Pope stepped outdoors to address thousands of people gathered in the square designed by Michelangelo. He was met with applause, the fanfare of a military band, and a flutter of red and yellow flags in the colors of Rome.

“Rome, a city fearing neither time nor progress… Rome, my Rome, I embrace and bless you and all your children and projects,” he said.

The Pope then went on to greet the city's oldest citizen, a 103-year-old woman. He also blessed an infant girl- the first baby to be born in Rome in 1998-and met the families of immigrants.

Walking slowly and with some difficulty, Pope John Paul II was accompanied throughout the visit by Mayor Rutelli, who wore a green, white, and red sash in Italy's national colors.

At one point, as the two men surveyed the Forum which was the capital of Ancient Rome, the Pope reminisced about his student days in the city.

“I would often come to the Roman Forum when I was a student, and later after being elected a bishop,” the Pope told the mayor. “I used to take long walks here and meditate.”

Before leaving City Hall, the Pope was presented with a 3-foot high block of marble believed to have been part of the Coliseum, painted with the image of two saints. The archeological fragment will be put on permanent display in the Vatican Museums (although it will officially remain property of the City of Rome which, by law, is prohibited from giving away its cultural patrimony).

In addition, Rome officials unveiled a marble plaque in the city's council chamber, inscribed: “In remembrance of the universal works carried out by His Holiness John Paul II, the mayor and civil administration mark the visit to City Hall by the Successor of Peter and Bishop of Rome, who has summoned a Great Jubilee at the start of the third millennium.”

Stephen Banyra writes from Rome.