VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II celebrated Palm Sunday Mass in the company of thousands of young people who joyously waved fronds and olive branches and cheered encouragement as he began a heavy schedule of Holy Week ceremonies.
The Vatican described the gathering of more than 40,000 faithful in front of the altar on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica as an antidote to fears of terrorism and war around the globe.
Security has been heightened in the last few months at the Vatican over concerns that the heart of Roman Catholicism could be a target of Islamic extremists. Italian police officers patrolled the crowd, and Vatican plainclothes security personnel kept a close eye on participants.
Still, the atmosphere was relaxed, as a hazy sun burned away morning fog. After blessing participants at the end of the two-hour ceremony, the pope spoke briefly with a young girl who broke away from the crowd and headed for his chair.
The coming week will see John Paul preside at Holy Thursday services at the Vatican, a Good Friday procession at the Colosseum, and Saturday night and Sunday morning Easter ceremonies.
John Paul, who turns 84 next month and who has Parkinson's disease, looked weak as he clutched a braided palm at the start of the ceremony. But he later seemed to gain strength, nodding in pleasure at cheers and applause from the crowd. The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano published photographs of terror bombings in Madrid, Middle East violence, and the Iraq war, and described the gathering as a "powerful antidote" to fear.