VATICAN CITY, MAY 6, 2001 (VIS) - At 9:30 this morning in Damascus' Abbassyine Stadium, in the presence of representatives of the Orthodox Churches of Syria, Pope John Paul presided at a concelebrated Mass with the Catholic patriarchs and bishops of Syria and all cardinals and bishops present in Damascus for the papal pilgrimage. The Eucharist was celebrated according to the Roman rite with the participation of all Catholic rites: Armenian, Chaldean, Greek, Latin, Maronite and Syrian.
An estimated 40,000 faithful filled the stadium.
"It is as a pilgrim," began the Pope, "that I have come today to Damascus, to commemorate the event which took place here two thousand years ago: the conversion of Saint Paul. On his way to Damascus to oppose and imprison those who confessed the name of Jesus, ... the Risen Christ appears to him; the meeting deeply affects him and a profound inner transformation takes place. From being a persecutor he becomes an apostle, from an opponent of the Gospel, he becomes its missionary." 
The Holy Father affirmed that "the extraordinary event that took place not far from here was decisive for the future of Paul and the Church. ... Down to our own time the Church continues to bear the fruits of his apostolic activity." Following Paul's example, "the Church is invited to look to the ends of the earth in order to continue the mission entrusted to her to transmit the light of the Risen One to all peoples and cultures, while respecting the freedom of individuals and communities, including spiritual communities." He said that, "like Paul, the disciples of Christ face a great challenge: they are to transmit the Good News by expressing it in a manner suited to each culture, without losing its content or altering its meaning." 
The Pope underscored that "this joyful news should inspire all Christ's disciples to seek ardently the paths of unity. ... At the dawn of the new millennium Christ is calling us all to come closer to one another in the charity which forms our unity." 
"With all your compatriots," John Paul II told the faithful present, "without distinction of community, continue tirelessly your efforts to build a society marked by fraternity, justice and solidarity, where everyone's human dignity and fundamental rights are recognized. In this holy land, Christians, Muslims and Jews are called to work together, with confidence and boldness, and to work to bring about without delay the day when the legitimate rights of all peoples are respected and they can live in peace and mutual understanding. Among you, may the poor, the sick, the handicapped and all those hurt by life be always brothers and sisters who are respected and loved! The Gospel is a powerful element in the transformation of the world. By your witness of life, may people today find the response to their deepest aspirations and the foundations for social coexistence!" 
The Holy Father invited Christian families "to pass on to your children the faith you have received over the centuries since the time of the Apostle Paul. By remaining united and open to all, by always defending the right to life from conception, be homes of light, in full conformity to God's plan and the true requirements of the human person! Give significant time to prayer, to listening to God's word and to Christian education; in them you will find effective support to tackle the difficulties of daily life and the great challenges of today's world. Any faithful and consistent Christian life requires regular participation in the Sunday Eucharist. The Eucharist is a privileged gift where communion with God and others comes about and is proclaimed." 
After Mass, in reflections which preceded the Regina Coeli prayer, Pope John Paul spoke of the "filial love" which Christians in Syria have for "Mary, Mother of God, who is likewise respected by our Muslim brothers and sisters." He said he "regretted" that time "does not permit me to make a  pilgrimage of prayer" to the churches and shrines dedicated to Mary in Syria. He assured the faithful they would be in his prayers when he visits the icon of Our Lady of Damascus in the Greek Catholic Church in Valletta, Malta, the last stage of his current pilgrimage.