As Pope Benedict XVI prepares to conclude his duties as Holy Father, young Catholics are recalling his marked efforts to renew the faith of the youth throughout the world.
Catholic youth speaker and author Chris Stefanick told Catholic News Agency that the Pope has been “extremely effective with young people” because of the “amazing clarity” and “humility with which he has carried out his pontificate.”
Echoing his predecessor’s call for a New Evangelization, Pope Benedict often spoke of the importance of taking the Gospel message to all parts of the world, including to what he called “the digital continent.”
Stefanick noted that, although the Church “has been talking about New Evangelization for a long time,” Pope Benedict’s use of the social-media website Twitter shows his sincere interest in reaching out to the next generation of Catholics by any means possible.
“It was a simple gesture,” Stefanick said, “but it was a profound gesture.”
Within a month after his Twitter debut, Pope Benedict had amassed 2.5 million followers in eight languages.
The Holy Father personally posted his first tweet on Dec. 12, saying, “Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.”
Subsequent tweets are being posted by the Pope’s assistants with content that he approves.
When Pope Benedict addressed the youth during his 2008 visit to New York, Stefanick noted that he exuded “the warmth of a really wise, loving grandfather.”
“I think young people really love him,” he said.
Recently, Pope Benedict voiced his concern for the youth to the Pontifical Council for Culture. At the council’s Feb. 6-9 assembly, he said that the “uncertainty and fragility that characterize so many young people” marginalizes them, making their generation “almost invisible and absent” from today’s world.
Emily Seaton, who was 16 when she attended Pope Benedict’s first World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005, said he was able to break through the apathy that can easily take hold of today’s youth.
Rather than trying to achieve the “impossible” task of being “another John Paul II,” Seaton told CNA, Pope Benedict won over the youth in a different yet very personal way than his predecessor could have.
“It was like he somehow managed to pierce every teenager’s heart with the message that ‘You matter,’” said Seaton, who has also attended World Youth Day in Sydney and Madrid.
“He won us over because he listened to us and treated us like adults, and then we respected him for that,” she said. “He just knew how to call us and challenge us.”
At the events, Seaton recalled that “there was no lack of fervor for him” on the part of the youth from all over the world.
“We listened to every word he said,” she recalled. “We stood in line for 10 hours just to see him drive by.”
Although some media outlets predicted that Pope Benedict would fall short of his predecessor’s outreach to youth, Ted Mast, who was 17 when he attended the 2005 papal Christmas Mass, emphasized that the papacy is not a popularity contest, but, rather, a personal response to the unique needs of the Church.
In “trying to be himself” during his pontificate, Mast said he thinks Pope Benedict has been “able to recognize where the Church is today, especially in regards to technology and moral relativism and the reasons people are leaving the Church.”
“He wasn’t trying to fill John Paul II’s shoes,” Mast said, “but he was trying to fulfill his mission to bring the youth into the Church.”
Despite the concerns he expressed for youth, Pope Benedict has emphasized the Church’s great confidence in young people, saying, “She needs their vitality in order to continue living the mission entrusted to her by Christ with renewed enthusiasm.”
Jenna Grable, a convert who was 21 when she attended the Pope’s Easter Mass in 2009, described the event as “one of the most moving experiences I have had as a Catholic.”
“The joy of Easter was present in his demeanor,” she said. “His connection to Our Lord was evident in his bright eyes and smile.”
Even though the Pope “did not share my language,” Grable said, “he shared my Creator.”