VATICAN CITY (CNS) – To change the world, children must press ahead, be joyful, ask adults why there is injustice and always help others, Pope Francis told thousands of children gathered in Rome’s Olympic Stadium for the church’s first ever World Children’s Day.

“We are gathered here at the Olympic Stadium, to ‘kick-off’ the movement of boys and girls who want to build a world of peace, where we are all brothers and sisters, a world that has a future because we want to take care of the environment around us,” he said May 25.

Pope Francis hugs a young girl named Valeria, who was representing all the children who could not attend the first World Day of Children because of war or poverty, in Rome’s Olympic Stadium May 25, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

About 50,000 people gathered in the stadium for a sunny afternoon of music, dance and even a brief friendly match in the center field between two teams made up of kids and retired Italian soccer champions. Multiple award-winning goalie, Gianluigi Buffon, placed a soccer ball in front of the pope’s chair. The pope stood and kicked the ball from the sidelines to symbolically kick-off the game. The pope later signed the ball and the kids’ jerseys.

The pope established the world day, which will include a Mass in St. Peter’s Square May 26, after holding a smaller encounter at the Vatican in November 2023 with some 7,500 children from 84 countries dedicated to learning from young children and listening to their questions about the future.

That event “brought a wave of joy” and “left a lasting impression in my heart,” he told the kids and those accompanying them in the stadium. He said he wanted that conversation to continue and expand to reach more children and young people, and “that is why we are here today: to keep the dialogue going, to ask questions and seek answers together.”

The pope told the children he knows they are sad about war, and he recounted his meeting earlier that day with children from Ukraine, Palestine and other parts of the world experiencing war. Many of the children had been injured and were in Italy to receive care. Vatican News reported that among those at the audience was Yana Stepanenko, 13, who lost both legs from a Russian missile strike in Ukraine. She ran the 5K at the Boston Marathon in April to raise money for prosthetics for a Ukrainian soldier in need.

The pope asked the children in the stadium to pray for their peers who cannot go to school, who suffer from war, who have no food or who are sick and lack medical care.

“Dear children, let us press ahead and be joyful. Joy is healthy for the soul,” he said, quizzing them to make sure they knew that Jesus loved them, and the devil did not.

Dozens of children representing different continents and countries gave the pope gifts, including two baskets of letters, 5,000 drawings and a pectoral cross modeled after the large and colorful “cross of joy” that was created for the world day and accompanied the events.

Riad, a young boy from Syria, gave the pope copies of photos taken in 2016 when Pope Francis invited 12 Syrian refugees, Riad included, to fly with him to Italy from a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece.

“He’s grown!” the pope said, looking at the young boy and the photos of him as a small child.

Between musical sets, children from different parts of the world asked the pope questions, such as what can children do to make the world a better place. Speak nicely, play together and help others, the pope replied.

How can people truly love everyone? a boy asked the pope. “It’s not easy,” the pope said. But start with just the people in one’s own life, including one’s classmates, and expand from there, he said.

When asked about why there were people without jobs or homes, the pope said all injustices were “the fruit of malice, egoism and war.”

Those who “climb the ladder,” crushing those below, are bad, and many countries spend money to build or buy arms while there are people going hungry, he said. He asked the huge crowd to be quiet for a moment of silence, praying for all those facing injustice and remembering that everyone shares a bit of the blame.

When asked how to help adults be more compassionate about those who are less fortunate, the pope said kids can help others and be a good example, and they can create “a true revolution” by always asking God and their parents, “Why?” such as why are there people living on the street or going without food.

He also urged the kids to visit their grandparents, who gave life, raised families and passed down their wisdom. “We have to respect,” visit and listen to grandparents, he said.