VATICAN CITY, JAN. 29, 2004 ( The HIV virus that has infected thousands of children in Africa led John Paul II to ask: "What evil have they done?" The Pope finds the answer in Christ.

What "of the tragedy of AIDS and its devastating consequences in Africa?" the Holy Father asks in his Message for Lent 2004, which he dedicates to children.

"It is said that millions of persons are now afflicted by this scourge, many of whom were infected from birth. Humanity cannot close its eyes in the face of so appalling a tragedy!" John Paul II writes in the text, which was published today by the Vatican press office.

"What evil have these children done to merit such suffering?" the Pope asks. "From a human standpoint it is not easy, indeed it may be impossible, to answer this disturbing question. Only faith can make us begin to understand so profound an abyss of suffering."

"By becoming 'obedient unto death, even death on a cross,' Jesus took human suffering upon himself and illuminated it with the radiant light of his resurrection. By his death, he conquered death once for all," the papal message continues.

This is the meaning of Lent, during which "we prepare to relive the Paschal Mystery, which sheds the light of hope upon the whole of our existence, even its most complex and painful aspects," the Pope writes.

For this reason, the Holy Father encourages the faithful to "set out with trust on our Lenten journey, sustained by fervent prayer, penance and concern for those in need."

This year's Lenten message is not just a meditation but a call to commitment. "In particular, may this Lent be a time of ever greater concern for the needs of children, in our own families and in society as a whole: for they are the future of humanity," the Pope states.

In the message that focuses on the theme "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me," the Holy Father says that only "the one who makes himself one of the 'least' is able to receive with love the 'least' of our brothers and sisters."

The Lenten message also denounces the sufferings children endure today.

"There are young people," the Pope writes, "who have been profoundly hurt by the violence of adults: sexual abuse, forced prostitution, involvement in the sale and use of drugs; children forced to work or enlisted for combat; young children scarred forever by the breakup of the family; little ones caught up in the obscene trafficking of organs and persons."

Lent begins Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday.