VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI thanked tens of thousands of the young altar servers for their important service to the church and urged them to "jealously safeguard" their friendship with the Jesus.
"Tell your peers about the gift of this friendship with the joy, with enthusiasm and without fear," he said.
The pope was flown to the Vatican by the helicopter Aug. 4 to give his first general audience since beginning his summer vacation from July 7 at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, south of the Rome.
More than 80,000 pilgrims cheered and waved at the sky as an Italian military helicopter carrying the pope circled over the St. Peter's Square.
The pilgrims in the square and along the top of the colonnade included more than 53,000 female and male altar servers, mostly from the pope's native of Germany, but also from 16 other European countries.
The altar servers were taking part in a two-day pilgrimage to the Rome organized by the European-based association "Coetus Internationalis Ministrantium," which was celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Upon his arrival in the square, the pope was presented with a white pilgrim bandana, which he wore draped over his shoulders; he said that the gift reminded him of his own years as a young altar server.
He told the altar servers, aged 14-25, that they were very fortunate to be able to take part in the mystery of the Eucharist.
The Eucharist "is a precious good, a priceless treasure and the bread of the life" with which Jesus nourishes and sustains his flock, giving people the love and strength they need in their daily lives.
By assisting priests at the altar, the servers help bring Jesus closer to the people and make him ever more present in the world, the pope said in German.
Dedicating their time and hearts to God will bring altar servers "true joy and more complete happiness," he said.
As part of the international pilgrimage, a four-and-a-half ton, 16-foot-tall bronze statue of St. Tarcisius, the patron saint of altar servers, was temporarily placed in St. Peter's Square.
The statue made a two-year pilgrimage of its own, traveling from Switzerland to Hungary and finally to Rome. It was to be moved Aug. 5 to its final destination outside the Catacombs of St. Callistus, where the young 3rd-century saint is believed to have been buried.
According to tradition, the young man, who was perhaps an acolyte or a deacon, was killed by a mob while defending the Eucharist he was carrying to prisoners and the homebound.
Pope Benedict said the young martyr exemplifies "the deep love and great veneration that we should have toward the Eucharist."
While martyrdom will probably not be asked of the most young people in the Europe today, he said, Jesus is calling everyone to be faithful "to the little things, to everyday duties and to witnessing his love by going to the church" and spending the time with people who help deepen your faith.