Venice: Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday urged Catholics to renew their faith and not to give in to "fear of the other" amid a wave of migration, at an open-air mass in front of 300,000 people near Venice.
"We have to testify about Christian hope to modern man, who is often beset with vast and worrying problems that throw the very foundations of his being and his actions into crisis," the pope told the crowd in his homily.
Speaking on the same day as more than 500 refugees from Libya were rescued by Italian coast guards after their boat hit rocks, he said Catholics should not give in to "fear of the other, of foreigners, of people who come from far away".
Europe has been mired in controversy over the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants and refugees from Libya and Tunisia in recent months, with Italy finding itself on the frontline of the arrivals from North Africa.
The head of the Roman Catholic Church also hailed "a new evangelisation" by groups such as the Communion and Liberation, Focolari and Neocatechumenal Way movements, criticised for their attitude towards secular society.
The 84-year-old German-born pope made no mention of the many doubts among believers over the Church's strict stance on doctrine or the scandal of paedophile priests, concentrating instead on the dangers of moral relativism.
He said he deplored the "sadness" of many Christians who are disillusioned with their faith and said the Church should not "let itself be dragged down by the failings that there might be in Christian communities".
"Don't be afraid to go against the grain," he told local clergy.
He called on Catholics to "promote and defend with courage the truth and unity of the faith", adding that being a Christian should not be a cultural or social identity without spiritual content.
The crowd, mostly from the surrounding area but also from Austria, Croatia and Slovenia, assembled in the San Giuliano park in Mestre, an industrial town on the mainland, a short drive away from Venice.
As the pope was driven through the crowd in his "popemobile", he was greeted with flags with the white-and-yellow colours of the Vatican.
The pope spoke from a raised platform surmounted by a canopy covered with images from the mosaics of Venice's Saint Mark's basilica -- an expensive set-up that has been criticised in the run-up to his visit.
On Saturday, the pope visited Venice and Aquileia, an ancient Roman town that became a historic hub of Christianity in the fourth century.
He called for Catholics to set "new missionary objectives" and to build "bridges of dialogue between peoples and nations".
He took a trip on a gondola later on Sunday across the Grand Canal from Saint Mark's Square to the Santa Maria della Salute basilica where he delivered a speech to business leaders and civil society groups.
Four men fought off fierce competition among Venice's 425 gondoliers for the honour of rowing for the pope. His predecessor John Paul II also took a gondola ride when he visited Venice in 1985.
First Published: Monday, May 09, 2011, 08:29