VATICAN CITY, FEB. 6, 2003 ( John Paul II's Message for Lent 2003 describes this liturgical period as a time of "intense" charity and solidarity.

"It is my fervent hope that believers will find this Lent a favorable time for bearing witness to the Gospel of charity in every place, since the vocation to charity is the heart of all true evangelization," the Pope said in his message, published today by the Vatican Press Office.

The text entitled "It Is More Blessed to Give Than to Receive" seeks to foster reflection on the part of the world's billion Catholics during Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, March 5, and is a preparation for Easter.

The Pope made his proposal, conscious that our "age, regrettably, is particularly susceptible to the temptation toward selfishness which always lurks within the human heart."

"In society generally, and in the media, people are bombarded by messages which more or less openly exalt the ephemeral and the hedonistic," he continues.

"An excessive desire for possessions prevents human beings from being open to their Creator and to their brothers and sisters," he stresses.

"Faced with the tragic situation of persistent poverty which afflicts so many people in our world, how can we fail to see that the quest for profit at any cost and the lack of effective, responsible concern for the common good have concentrated immense resources in the hands of a few, while the rest of humanity suffers in poverty and neglect?" the Holy Father asks.

"Appealing to believers and to all people of good will," John Paul II says, "our goal should not be the benefit of a privileged few but, rather, the improvement of the living conditions of all. Only on this foundation can we build that international order truly marked by justice and solidarity which is the hope of everyone."

For the Pope, the selfless commitment of Christians is not mere philanthropy. They "draw their strength from that sole and inexhaustible treasury of love which is the complete gift of Jesus to the Father."

"Christians must not think that they can seek the true good of their brothers and sisters without embodying the charity of Christ," the papal message adds.

"At times it is not the Christian command to love but, rather, an innate sense of compassion which motivates our efforts to assist others. Even so, anyone who helps those in need always enjoys God's favor," the Pope emphasizes.

"For those who are 'far-off,' service to the needy can be a providential path leading to an encounter with Christ, since the Lord abundantly repays the good deeds done to one's neighbor," the Holy Father concludes.