Pope John Paul II is the only Pope I have ever known. For me and the nearly two generations of Catholics under the age of 40, this Holy Father is the only pope who is imprinted upon our collective consciousness, and he is imprinted there indelibly.
We were the youth that this Pope treasured, the teen-agers and young adults that he tirelessly sought out like no one before him. Therefore, you must forgive us if the pain of his separation strikes us a bit deeper than most.
In the days immediately after his death, just a glimpse of his picture was enough to bring tears to my eyes, and I suspect that I was not alone in this regard. Of course the tears are not for the Pope; we are confident that our spiritual father has passed on to his eternal reward. No, the tears are for us. For, despite the Pope’s triumphant end, the pain of separation remains — a dear family member has left us.
This was no ordinary family member, to be sure. This was a Pope who both believed in us and made a concerted effort to reach us, the youth of America. The Holy Father first came to the United States in 1979 on a six-city tour. But like the hound of heaven pursuing his lost sheep, he returned again and again — in September of 1987, in August of 1993, in October of 1995 and in January of 1999 — often making it a point to meet with young people directly.
And just in case that wasn’t enough, he returned to nearby Toronto for World Youth Day in 2001.
Of course, there were those who thought we wouldn’t listen. They thought he was wasting his time. In 1979, when he arranged to meet the youth of America in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, no one expected a packed house to spontaneously break into the heartfelt rhythmic chant of “John Paul II, we love you.”
Somehow, though, it happened.
In 1993, despite the success of previous World Youth Days, no one expected a similar response from America. He was told that the American youth would have little interest in coming to Denver for the event. Yet more than 100,000 young people showed up and proved the critics dead wrong by staying up all night in a rain-soaked field to sing and pray together.
That the younger generation of Catholics responded to him in this manner left pundits scratching their heads. They could never see it coming, for they did not understand the man.
They tried to dismiss it, attributing the response to his superstar persona or a peculiar cult of personality. And while he did have a superstar persona, that was not the reason we loved the man. We loved him because he challenged us like no other figure of our times.
There were no shortcuts with Pope John Paul II. There was no “Catholic lite,” no easy road to take — and that made him unique. In fact, for many of our era, Pope John Paul II was the only authentically Catholic voice we heard from our Church. And we ate it up.
While many of our Catholic churches were busy hiding the tabernacle in obscure nooks, Pope John Paul II boldly declared that we open wide the doors to Christ and declared this the Year of the Eucharist. He gave us a renewed appreciation for the Body and Blood of Christ.
While many of our Catholic parishes were covering up stained-glass windows, converting churches into convention halls, removing kneelers and emphasizing the congregation over Christ, Pope John Paul II told us to keep our eyes fixed upon Christ. His reverence for the liturgy made us stop and take notice. He taught us how to worship.
While many Catholic catechists were watering down the message of Christ to make it more “palatable” and easy to accept, Pope John Paul II demonstrated that he had more faith in us. He unflinchingly presented us with the entire Gospel message, not just liberal or conservative snippets, rather the entirety of Christ crucified and risen. He presented us with the truth.
While many of our Catholic colleges were busy keeping up with the progressive flavor of the month, Pope John Paul II proclaimed that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). His message and truth will not and cannot change. The Holy Father showed us the foundation upon which we could build our lives.
While many Catholics in America clamored for married priests and women priests to augment the clergy’s sagging ranks, Pope John Paul II put his faith in the youth.
While our society told us that we couldn’t survive our teen-age years without sex, Pope John Paul II believed we were capable of so much more. He gave us the most profound and beautiful vision of sexual intimacy ever presented to mankind. In his theology of the body, he perceived the sexual act within marriage to be a complete, unreserved gift of self — a means by which we could sanctify the world. He challenged us not to settle for a counterfeit version of love. He taught us how to make our marriages bear much fruit.
While our society increasingly told us that life had little meaning beyond pleasing ourselves, Pope John Paul II declared that our lives were pregnant with meaning. For, within each of our hearts, the cosmic struggle between good and evil was being waged. Our lives, each unique and irreplaceable, had eternal consequences. He told us of our mission in this world.
While our leaders advocated the necessity of abortion and euthanasia in order to solve the problems of poverty, isolation and neglect in America, Pope John Paul II showed us a better way. He challenged us to confront human isolation and neglect head-on by protecting the dignity and sanctity of all human life, particularly the weak and infirm. For Pope John Paul II, the only proper response to another human being was love. He showed us how to cherish life.
While the world had no use for suffering and told us to avoid it at all costs and look for instant gratification, Pope John Paul II bore his suffering for the entire world to see. He never hid his hunched posture, his shaking stance or his slurred speech. Rather, he wore them like a bride wears a wedding gown and we loved him all the more. He was a profound example of redemptive suffering.
While modernity told us that we had outgrown our need for religion, Pope John Paul II told us that Jesus Christ was the only real hope for building a human society based upon justice and truth. For all the problems associated with the human condition, he had one simple and profound answer — Christ. For 26 years, he brought us face to face with Christ.
Now he is gone and a feeling of abandonment, much like the apostles must have had after Christ ascended to heaven, hangs about us.
While we cannot escape the feeling, we must not let it linger. For, as he exhorted us on the first day of his pontificate: “Be not afraid.” As we part ways, we must not be afraid to let the many seeds he planted within us these past years bear fruit.
We must bear fruit to ensure that Pope John Paul II’s message to the world — the same message Christ proclaimed — echoes through the centuries ahead.
Daniel Kuebler, Ph.D., is an
assistant professor of biology
at Franciscan University
of Steubenville, Ohio.