VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI urged Catholics to look ahead, one year after the death of Pope John Paul II, saying they should heed the late pontiff's exhortation and not be afraid to follow Christ.
Benedict made the appeal during a solemn Mass attended by tens of thousands of people in St. Peter's Square to mark the first anniversary of John Paul's death. The Mass followed a candlelit vigil the night before, during which Benedict said John Paul's memory was still very much alive.
"This evening, our thoughts turn with emotion to the moment of the death of our beloved pontiff, but at the same time the heart, as it were, is urged to look forward," Benedict said in his homily.
He said the faithful should follow John Paul's repeated appeals to "go forward without fear on the path of being loyal to the Gospel and being witnesses to Christ in the third millennium."
Tens of thousands of people, including Italian politicians and actress Sophia Loren, attended the Mass. Two dozen cardinals celebrated the Mass, among them John Paul's longtime private secretary, recently elevated Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, Poland.
Dziwisz has been at the forefront in pushing for John Paul to be beatified — the first step to possible sainthood.
Benedict, who placed John Paul on the fast track for beatification, has been supporting the effort as well, highlighting in recent homilies the late pope's suffering — and on Monday, his faith.
"Those who were able to get close to him could almost touch with their hand his sound and solid faith," Benedict said in his homily.
"A convincing, strong and authentic faith, free of fear and compromise, which touched the hearts of so many people thanks to his many apostolic pilgrimages around the world and especially thanks to his last 'voyage,' which was his agony and his death."
The scene was far more solemn than the evening before, when the square twinkled with the lights of thousands of candles and fluttered with the red-and-white flags of John Paul's native Poland.
The square fell silent Sunday night at 9:37 p.m., the exact time of John Paul's death.
The Vatican's final anniversary event is scheduled for Thursday afternoon in St. Peter's, dedicated to the young people who were so important to John Paul.