Pontiff uses Ash Wednesday to press home anti-war message, reports Simon Caldwell
THE POPE opened the Lenten season with a heartfelt plea for Christians to pray and fast for world peace.
John Paul II described Lent as an "austere ascetic journey" and a "time of more intense prayer, of penance and of greater attention to the needs of brothers".
And he linked the holy season to the urgent need to build a lasting peace, based on justice, throughout the world.
"While we enter the time of Lent, we cannot but be conscious of the present international context, in which threatening tensions of war are agitated," the Pope Said during his general audience for 6,500 pilgrims in Paul VI Hall, the Vatican.
"It is necessary that everyone consciously assume responsibility and engage in a common effort to spare humanity another dramatic conflict.
"For this reason, I wanted today, Ash Wednesday, to be a day of prayer and fasting to implore peace for the world.
"Above all, we must ask God for conversion of heart, in which every form of evil and every thrust toward sin is rooted — we must pray and fast for peaceful coexistence among peoples and nations."
The Pope said Christians were called to live and spread a style of generosity that would promote the "authentic moral and civil development of society".
He added: "May this day of prayer and fasting for peace, with which we begin Lent, be translated in concrete gestures of reconciliation.
"From the family to the international realm, may each one feel and make himself co-responsible for the construction of peace. And the God of peace, who knows the intentions of the human heart and calls his children peacemakers, will not be lacking in his recompense."
The Pope later received ashes himself at the Basilica of St Sabina, Rome, from the hands of Slovak Cardinal Jozef Tomko, titular bishop of the basilica and Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples.
The Pope repeated his calls for peace during his homily. "There will be no peace on earth while the oppression of peoples, injustices and economic imbalances, which still exist, endure," he said.
"But for the desired structural changes to take place, external initiatives and interventions are not enough — what is needed above all is a joint conversion of hearts to love."
As the Pope spoke, his special envoy, retired Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi, was in Washington DC to discuss the Middle East crisis with American President George W Bush.
Cardinal Laghi, 80, a former papal nuncio to the United States, reiterated the Vatican's opposition to a war without UN approval, saying it would be immoral, illegal and unjust.
Cardinal Laghi, who delivered a personal message from the Pope to President Bush during the 40-minute meeting at the White House, said the Vatican believed "peaceful avenues" still existed to end the crisis.
"I am going away with hope despite the situation," he said.
Also present were National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Jim Nicholson, US ambassador to the Vatican.
At a later press conference following a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the cardinal said he did not know if his "message was received with the same intention that it was given".
Cardinal Laghi said that he insisted on discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with President Bush. He said the solution to Middle East tension rested with solving the conflict in the Holy Land. He said he told the President: "We have to solve that problem sooner rather than later."
The cardinal also said he objected to the statements that war would
advance the cause of peace and freedom in Iraq. "Look what happened in Afghanistan," he said. "Peace and freedom hasn't happened there."
He added: "We are trying to build bridges between Christianity and Islam, and we don't want to destroy those bridges."
Some Muslim and Jewish leaders joined in the special day of prayer and
fasting for peace and thanked the Pope
publicly for the initiative.
Mohammed Nour Dachan, president
of the Union of Muslim Communities of Italy, told Vatican Radio that "at this time, as at other times since September 11, His Holiness has made just and correct appeals."
He said: "I think that he is taking a position that we share fully: No one should use religion for other objectives, especially bellicose ones."
Tullia Zcvi, vice president of the European Jewish Congress, declared over Vatican Radio her support for the fast proposed by John Paul II.
"It is difficult for a conflict today to remain circumscribed to Iraq," she said. "In general, observers anticipate that the start of a war against Iraq might extend to the whole Middle East.
"I also know that in Israel, the majority of the country is under shock from the terrorist attacks against the civilian population, which have created the hardening of defence measures.
"But my considerations are not dictated by a desire to harm Israel's position, but by great apprehension over the consequences that an armed conflict might also have for the fate of Israel."