Pope Francis invited participants in an annual Catholic festival Monday to join him "in witnessing to the experience of the beauty of God."

In a message on behalf of the pope for this year's Meeting for Friendship among Peoples in Rimini, Italy, Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin highlighted the role of beauty in attracting people to the Christian faith.

"The Pope therefore invites you to continue to collaborate with him in witnessing to the experience of the beauty of God who became flesh so that our eyes may marvel at his face and our eyes may find in him the wonder of living," the cardinal wrote in the message dated Aug. 5 and released by the Holy See press office Aug. 17.

Parolin noted that the theme of this year's meeting, which takes place Aug. 18-23, is "Devoid of wonder, we remain deaf to the sublime," taken from American Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's 1955 book "God in Search of Man." 

The meeting, which usually attracts around 800,000 people and is organized by the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation, is being held online this year because of the coronavirus crisis, which has claimed more than 35,000 lives in Italy as of Aug. 17.

According to the official program, the opening session will feature Mario Draghi, former president of the European Central Bank, who was named a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences by Pope Francis in July. The final day will include a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian bishops' conference.

The cardinal said that this year's theme would offer "a precious and original contribution at a dizzying moment in history." He noted that the pandemic had enabled many to rediscover wonder.

"In the past few months we have experienced that dimension of amazement that takes the form of compassion in the presence of suffering, fragility and the precariousness of existence," he said in the message, addressed to Bishop Francesco Lambiasi of Rimini.

"This noble human sentiment has prompted doctors and nurses to face the grave challenge of the coronavirus with unwavering dedication and admirable commitment. The same sentiment, full of affection for their students, has enabled many teachers to embrace the fatigue of distance learning, ensuring the completion of the school year. And equally it has allowed many to find in the faces and in the presence of family members the strength to face discomfort and difficulties."

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Parolin described the Rimini Meeting, which has taken place annually since 1980, as a "powerful reminder" of the need to cultivate wonder.

"Amazement is the way to grasp the signs of the sublime, that is, of that mystery that constitutes the root and foundation of all things," he wrote.

The cardinal recalled that a group of artists had written to Pope Francis, thanking him for praying for them at Mass in the chapel of his residence, the Casa Santa Marta, during the coronavirus lockdown. 

"Artists make us understand what beauty is, and without beauty the Gospel cannot be understood," the pope had said.

Quoting Msgr. Luigi Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation, Parolin wrote: "For this reason the theme that characterizes the meeting launches a decisive challenge to Christians, called to testify to the profound attraction that faith exerts by virtue of its beauty: 'the attraction of Jesus,' according to an expression dear to the Servant of God Luigi Giussani."

The cardinal concluded by saying that the pope imparted his Apostolic Blessing to participants in this year's meeting and asked them to continue to pray for him.

Recalling that St. John Paul II once declared that "It is worth being a man, because You, Jesus, have been a man," Parolin said: "Isn't this amazing discovery perhaps the greatest contribution that Christians can offer to sustain the hope of men? It is a task from which we cannot refrain, especially at this narrow hairpin bend in history. It is the call to be transparent images of the beauty that changed our lives, concrete witnesses of the love that saves, especially with regard to those who now suffer most."

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