VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II threw a pop music party late Friday, the first ever in St. Peter's Square, then reminded 120,000 revelers in a New Year's blessing at midnight that Y2K is, above all, a Christian milestone.
"The clock of history strikes an important hour," the Roman Catholic leader proclaimed from his apartment window three stories above the square as fireworks lighted the sky and church bells pealed. "For believers, this is the year of the Great Jubilee" commemorating the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ.
A week ago, John Paul proclaimed the start of a Holy Year, or Jubilee, that is meant to draw millions of pilgrims to Rome and put a stamp of Christian humanism on the next millennium. The 54-week celebration is so special to him that today, for the first time in his 21-year papacy, he welcomed a New Year with a midnight appearance.
"May you always be certain of God's love for us," he told the roaring crowd and millions of television viewers in 31 countries. "As he did 2,000 years ago, Christ comes today with his saving gospel to guide the uncertain and faltering steps of peoples and nations, leading them toward a future of true hope.
"I ask him to bless this moment of festivity and good wishes, that it may be the promising beginning of a new millennium filled with joy and peace."
His voice was strong but his hands trembled as the 79-year-old pope, who suffers symptoms of Parkinson's disease, read a four-minute urbi et orbi (to the city and the world) address. He stood at the window 10 minutes in all, waving and soaking up the adulation, which included chants usually heard at Italian soccer matches.
Six hours earlier, pilgrims at a Te Deum Mass watched two Vatican ushers wheel John Paul through the nave of St. Peter's Basilica as he stood for the first time on a chariot-like cart and gripped its handrails--a sign that he may have become too weak to walk the distance of a football field across the church.
John Paul's appearance capped a 95-minute party featuring live performances by Queen Esther Marrow and her Harlem Gospel Singers, who belted out "Higher and Higher," and the Italian pop singer Claudio Baglioni, who closed with "When the Saints Go Marching In."
But it was the globe-trotting pope who drew many spectators to Catholicism's holiest shrine.
"For me, St. Peter's is the center of the world, and the pope is the most important person of our time," said Roger Eichmann, a 25-year-old tax collector from Switzerland.
"This is where it's at," echoed Michelle Conroy, an eighth-grader at St. Mel School in Woodland Hills. "You can't find this anywhere," she added, gesturing toward the giant basilica. "You can go to Vegas [to see a replica] but it's, like, you know, cheap. This is the real thing."
In a parallel observance that spanned 18 time zones, young Catholics gathered in churches from Tonga to Mexico to exchange New Year's greetings over speaker phones with a host congregation in Rome.
Tens of thousands took part in the hookups, including Catholics in East Timor, Mongolia, Moscow, Jerusalem and Havana. Their voices boomed over a loudspeaker next to an illuminated map of the world just to the right of the altar.
"I give thanks to God that I am alive and able to see the new millennium," said Roberto Suares Cabral, 26, of the Catholic relief agency Caritas. He gave a dramatic account from the cathedral in Dili, East Timor, of his arrest and near-execution by pro-Indonesian militias four months ago.
The Vatican organized the prayer vigil with help from Catholic youth organizations in 22 countries.
The New Year's bash in St. Peter's was staged to appeal to the young, although it failed to outdraw Italian pop stars Alex Britti and Ligabue, who drew 400,000 listeners in and around Rome's Piazza del Popolo.
Friday night's performers made good on a promise by one of the organizers, Msgr. Domenico Sigalini, that the concert would be "a serious commemoration worthy of every Christian." Before leaving the 1900s behind, the pope looked back at humankind's great advances and its bloody conflicts.
"What suffering, what dramatic events!" he said. "But, also, what incredible achievements."