LORETO, Italy – The planet risks irreversible decline from environmentally unsustainable development, Pope Benedict XVI warned Sunday, urging young Catholics to take the lead in caring for the Earth and its precious resources.
During an open-air Mass on the final day of a weekend religious youth rally that drew about 500,000 people to the town of Loreto, Italy's most important shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Benedict said the world's water supply particularly needed to be preserved and shared equitably to avoid conflicts.
The Loreto meeting organized by the Italian bishops' conference carried a strong environmental message. Participants were given biodegradable plates, recycling bags for their trash and a hand-cranked cell-phone recharger.
Benedict told the crowd, camped out under umbrellas and tents on a vast, dusty field on the Adriatic coast, that it was up to them to save the planet from development that had often ignored "nature's delicate equilibrium."
"Before it's too late, we need to make courageous choices that will recreate a strong alliance between man and Earth," Benedict said in his homily. "We need a decisive 'yes' to care for creation and a strong commitment to reverse those trends that risk making the situation of decay irreversible."
He said water needed to be preserved since "it unfortunately becomes a source of strong tensions and conflicts if it isn't shared in an equitable and peaceful manner."
Benedict lamented this week the environmental impact of recent forest fires in Italy and Greece. And during his summer vacation in the mountains, he spoke frequently about the importance of nature — God's creation — in inspiring spirituality.
Under Benedict, the Vatican has been taking steps toward greater environmental sustainability. It has joined a reforestation project aimed at offsetting its CO2 emissions, and has also said it was installing solar cells on the roof of its main auditorium.
Benedict urged the young to "go against the grain" and not be seduced by pressure, including from the mass media, to succeed at all costs in arrogant, egotistical ways.
"Be vigilant! Be critical! Don't get swept up in the wave of this powerful persuasion," he said. "Don't be afraid, dear friends, to take the 'alternate' path indicated by true love: a sober and solid lifestyle, with loving, sincere and pure relations, an honest commitment to studies and work, and the profound interest in the common good."
Andrea Ringressi, 29, and his girlfriend of three years, Marta Iuzzolini, 27, said they appreciated the pope's green message, particularly during an event that was producing small mountains of plastic water bottles and other refuse.
"It's a good idea here, because there's so much garbage!" Iuzzolini said as she surveyed the grounds, which by the end of the weekend had turned into a very un-ecological field of plastic tarps and garbage bags.
But the couple, who traveled across Italy from the Tuscan city of Pisa for the event, said Benedict's other main message — about how young people should not be afraid to commit themselves to marriage even though so many marriages fail — had particular resonance.
"Marriage is a challenge that we are thinking about," Ringressi said, as he snuggled with Iuzzolini under an umbrella. "I appreciate that he says there are difficulties, but that if you have this desire, this will to follow your dreams, confide in Jesus."
The meeting was an Italian warm-up for next year's World Youth Day, in Sydney, Australia, which the 80-year-old pope plans to attend.