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ROME – In one of the largest public gatherings he’s held since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Pope Francis urged thousands of youth to have the courage to follow Jesus, despite the fears and insecurities they might have.

Speaking to roughly 80,000 Italian youth gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Monday, the pope said that Easter marks Jesus’ victory over death, but noted that this year, “the clouds that darken our time are still dense.”

“In addition to the pandemic, Europe is experiencing a terrible war, while injustices and violence continue in many regions of the earth that destroy mankind and the planet,” he said, noting that it is often young people who pay the highest price, as they lose their hope and dreams for the future.

He then referred to the Gospel passage in which Peter and John along with a handful of others, after Jesus’ resurrection, go out for an unsuccessful night of fishing. In the morning, Jesus appears and tells them to try again, and when the disciples obey, their nets are full of fish.

“Sometimes life puts us to the test, makes us touch our frailties, makes us feel naked, helpless, alone…We must not be ashamed to say: ‘I’m afraid of the dark!’ We are all afraid of the dark,” the pope said. “Fears must be said, fears must be expressed in order to be able to drive them away.”

“When the fears, which are in darkness, go into the light, the truth bursts out,” he said, insisting that the important thing about moments of crisis is not the crisis itself, but “how I manage this crisis.”

Staying isolated and closed off from others doesn’t help, but talking to and confiding in others does, he said.

Pope Francis also urged youth to maintain their enthusiasm for life and their “nose” for reality, saying adults over the years tend to lose their sight, their hearing, and their “nose” for life.

“You have ‘the nose.’ Don’t lose this, please! You have the nose for reality, and it’s a great thing,” the pope said, voicing hope that young people would have “the nose of John” in the Gospel, who was the youngest but the first to recognize Jesus after the night of fishing, as well as “the courage of Peter,” who was the oldest, but the first to jump in and swim to the shore where Jesus was standing.

Kids, aged 12-17, gathered in St. Peter’s Square April 18, the Monday after Easter – a cherished Italian holiday known as Pasquetta, or “little Easter” – for a pilgrimage organized by the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI).

Titled “#Seguimi (#Followme),” from Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel, and promoted on social media under the same hashtag, the pilgrimage marks one of the first major public gatherings to take place in St. Peter’s Square since Italy’s initial coronavirus lockdown in 2020, apart from the pope’s Holy Week and Easter liturgies.

A mini controversy surrounding the event erupted over the participation of Italian rapper Blanco, who won this year’s Sanremo Music Festival with Italian singer Mahmood for their collaborative number, Brividi, meaning “Chills.” The music video for the song features a romantic relationship between two gay men.

Due to the risqué nature of some of his songs and performances, including one in which he came on stage wearing a bra, the bishop of Ventimiglia-San Remo, Antonio Suetta, voiced strong criticism about Blanco’s inclusion – whose presence was apparently meant to reach out to youth – among the list of performers.

“The church has always promoted art to elevate the spirit, while this endorses vulgarity,” he said, adding that he reacted with “great negative surprise” when he heard Blanco would be among the performers for Monday’s event.

In his opinion, Suetta said Blanco “is not an adequate model for a Catholic initiative aimed at adolescents,” and that he finds it “embarrassing that a character who has clearly become an icon…of a certain way of conceiving life, freedom, affectivity, etc., performs in St. Peter’s Square.”

Other prominent artists were also present.

Pope Francis, who rode around in his popemobile greeting youth before the event started, heard testimonies from several participants before offering his own remarks.

Closing his speech, the pope told youths gathered not to be “ashamed of your outbursts of generosity.”

“The nose will lead you to generosity. Throw yourself into life,” he said, adding, “don’t be afraid of life, please! Be afraid of death, the death of the soul, the death of the future, the closure of the heart, be afraid of these things. But of life, no. Life is beautiful.”

Life, the pope said, “is for living and giving to others, not to close it in on itself.”

“It is important that you move forward,” he said. “The fears? Illuminate them, say them. Discouragement? Win it with courage, with someone to give you a hand. And the nose for life: don’t lose it, because it’s a beautiful thing.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen