By Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The Vatican is expecting some 70,000 children between the ages of 5 and 12 and their chaperones to fill Rome’s Olympic Stadium for the opening events of the first World Children’s Day May 25 and to join Pope Francis for Mass in St. Peter’s Square the next morning.

Franciscan Father Enzo Fortunato, coordinator of the event, told reporters May 16 that, given school schedules and travel logistics, only about 10% of the participants will be children from outside of Italy. But, he said, 101 nations will be represented.

Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, prefect of the Dicastery for Culture and Education, said that while there will be games, singing and dancing, at its heart World Children’s Day is “a great ecclesial gathering.”

“Children have a right to encounter Christ and to experience the joy of the Gospel,” he said, “but we adults also need to listen to the Gospel that bubbles over in the lives of children.”

In a March letter to the world’s children, Pope Francis invited them to participate in the Rome event because, he said, God wants them and everyone else “to become builders of a new, more humane, just and peaceful world.”

He said he chose the Bible passage, “Behold, I make all things new,” as the theme for the day because it is a reminder that to make the world a better place, people need to be united with Jesus and with others.

“With Jesus, we can dream of the renewal of our human family and work for a more fraternal society that cares for our common home,” the pope wrote.

The program for the event at Olympic Stadium includes performances by some of Italy’s best-known and well-loved singers and actors, as well as a brief mini soccer match between some of the youngsters and recently retired stars of Italian soccer captained by legendary goalie Gianluigi Buffon.

Pope Francis is expected to arrive late in the afternoon and engage in a dialogue with the children and answer some of the thousands of questions mailed in — along with drawings — by young people from around the world, Father Fortunato said.

The event will end after Mass and the recitation of the Angelus at the Vatican May 26 with a performance by Italian actor Roberto Benigni.

Francesco Rocca, president of Italy’s Lazio region, and Rome Mayor Roberto Gualtieri attended the Vatican press briefing May 16. Both described the logistical coordination of the event — which includes security, transportation, meals, health care and campground preparation — as a “dress rehearsal” for the events of the Holy Year 2025.