KRAKÓW, Poland — After a Stations of the Cross that matched each station to one of the seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy, Pope Francis issued a challenging summons to the assembled young people — a challenge which elicited from them a loud, enthusiastic and affirmative response.

“Humanity today needs men and women, and especially young people like yourselves, who do not wish to live their lives ‘halfway,’” the Holy Father said. “Young people ready to spend their lives freely in service to those of their brothers and sisters who are poorest and most vulnerable, in imitation of Christ, who gave himself completely for our salvation. In the face of evil, suffering and sin, the only response possible for a disciple of Jesus is the gift of self, even of one’s own life, in imitation of Christ; it is the attitude of service.”

The contrast between a “halfway” life and a life of Christian fullness was the theme that Pope Francis proposed in his first two days of World Youth Day events in Kraków. At his initial encounter on Thursday evening, the Holy Father lamented the sadness of a young person who never strives for great ideals or ambitious goals.

“It pains me to meet young people who seem to have opted for ‘early retirement,’” Pope Francis confessed. “This pains me. Young people who seem to retire at 23, 24, 25 years of age. This pains me. I worry when I see young people who have ‘thrown in the towel’ before the game has even begun, who are defeated even before they begin to play. Deep down, young people like this are bored … and boring, who bore others, and this upsets me. … So I ask you: Are you looking for empty thrills in life, or do you want to feel a power that can give you a lasting sense of life and fulfillment? Empty thrills or the power of grace? What do you want: deadening thrills or the power of fullness? What do you want? To find fulfillment, to gain new life, there is a way, a way that is not for sale, that cannot be purchased, a way that is not a thing or an object, but a person. His name is Jesus Christ.”

With his characteristic spontaneity and warmth, the Holy Father challenged the young people to answer in a marvelous exchange, as he was speaking Italian and most of those gathered were not — but everyone managed.

The fullness of life that comes from an encounter with Christ and his grace? Or a boring life that comes from not striving?

The Holy Father was echoing one of the most famous quotations of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, such an important saint for young people that his remains have been brought to Kraków for World Youth Day — as they were in Sydney for WYD 2008.

“To live without faith, without a patrimony to defend, without a steady struggle for truth — that is not living, but existing,” Pier Giorgio told his friends.

Pope Francis’ reference to the “gift of self” echoed the teaching of Vatican II, which St. John Paul included in every major document and address, namely that man “can only find himself in a sincere gift of self” (Gaudium et Spes, 24). Pope Francis hammered home the same point — we only find the greatness we seek when we give ourselves to Christ, manifest in the service we offer to others, the gift we make of ourselves.

The papal theme complemented an extraordinary testimony at the main site for English-speaking pilgrims, the “Mercy Center” hosted by the Knights of Columbus in Kraków’s hockey arena. Two of St. John Paul’s closest friends made the same point. In a touching talk, Piotr and Teresa Malecki spoke of their lifelong friendship with the young priest who accompanied them on summer kayak trips, spoke to them about their young lives, married them, baptized all their children, and welcomed them every summer as visitors to Castel Gandolfo, then the papal summer residence. They told of his kindness to them, his genuine fatherhood and friendship, but also noted that “everything was not sweetness” — he challenged them when needed.

For a couple who had known Karol Wojtyła almost his entire life as a priest — Piotr was an altar boy for Father Wojtyła in one of his first assignments in Kraków — it was noteworthy that they chose only a single quotation to repeat to their audience. It was something he had told the youth of Poland, first at Częstochowa in 1983, and then again in 1987 at Westerplatte, where the Nazi invasion of Poland began in 1939.

“Even if others do not demand much from you, you must demand much of yourselves,” said John Paul, in the type of address that would characterize the future, but then still nascent, World Youth Days. It was a public version of what he told the Maleckis and the other young people he gathered around him for friendship and formation.

“Each one of you will find in your life [a task] you must assume and complete,” he continued. “Some just cause, in which it is impossible not to fight. Some duty, some obligation, from which [you] cannot escape, and from which it is impossible to desert. A certain order of truths and values you are obliged to maintain and defend. ... In such a moment (and there are many of them, for they are not something exceptional), remember: Christ is passing by you and saying, ‘Follow me.’ Do not abandon him. Do not run away. Hear that call.”

That’s the secret of World Youth Days, the foundation upon which is built the festivity and fellowship and fun — the summons to aim higher than a “halfway” life, to fully live and not just settle for mere existing, to demand much even if others do not demand precious little.

“Nothing is more beautiful than seeing the enthusiasm, dedication, zeal and energy with which so many young people live their lives,” exulted Pope Francis in his welcoming ceremony address. “This is beautiful! And where does this beauty come from? When Jesus touches a young person’s heart, he or she becomes capable of truly great things.”

 Father Raymond J. De Souza 

is editor in chief of 

Convivium magazine.

He is in Kraków to cover

World Youth Day for

the Register and EWTN.