As the latest World Youth Day has once again reminded us, young people have a special place in the heart of Pope John Paul II.

On the very day of his papal inauguration on Oct. 22, 1978, the Holy Father said to the youth who had gathered in St. Peter's Square: “You are the hope of the Church and of the world. You are my hope.”

He has often repeated these words as he looks to young people with the particularly fervent hope that they may provide a new beginning of evangelization and a new springtime for the Church.

Love is contagious. John Paul's love for the young is evident and warmly reciprocated. Although today's young people live in a strikingly different milieu than the one the Holy Father experienced during his own adolescence, there is a common thread that unites all youth. As John Paul states, youth is not merely a period of life that corresponds to a certain number of years, but “a time given by Providence to every person and given to him as a responsibility.”

During this time, young people search not only for the meaning of life, but also for a concrete way to go about living their lives. It is this fundamental characteristic of youth, according to the Pope, that we must love.

Here the Holy Father cites the timeless question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” asked by the young man in Matthew 19:16ff. As John Paul reiterates, in this search the young “cannot help but encounter the Church, and the Church also cannot help but encounter the young.”

The Pope has stated that, “if at every stage of his life man desires to be his own person, to find love, during his youth he desires it even more strongly.” But this desire to be one's own person, he is quick to caution, is not to be understood as a license to do anything without exception.

Proper authority figures are needed. And even when the young follow figures that are rightly considered “a scandal in the contemporary world,” “in the depths of their hearts they still desire a beautiful and pure love.”

The Pope tells us that from his earliest days as a priest he felt a call to minister to young people in a special way: “to teach them to love.” “In the young,” he writes in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, “there is, in fact, an immense potential for good and for creative possibility.”

And yet he is remarkably self-effacing about the role he plays in the spiritual and moral lives of young people. As he frequently points out to them, “What I am going to say to you is not as important as what you are going to say to me. You will not necessarily say it to me in words; you will say it to me by your presence, by your song, perhaps by your dancing, by your skits and finally by your enthusiasm.”

Even now, severely bowed by old age, John Paul is respected by youth as a singularly courageous and reliable role model. Why?

John Paul does not want anyone to forget for one moment that a person's relationship with a pope is not nearly as important as one's relationship with Christ. “An important day in a young person's life,” he writes, “is the day on which he becomes convinced that this [Christ] is the only friend who will not disappoint him, on whom he can always count.”

We will not always have this Pope to walk among us. He is a temporary vicar and, as a good vicar, his most essential task is to introduce us to Christ.

While some cynical and weary adults are trying to find words to discredit the aging John Paul, calling him “unbending,” “inflexible,” “iron-willed,” “rigid” and “intransigent,” the young are describing him more justly and more accurately as “a man of integrity.”

At a time when the young observe terrorism, corporate greed, scandals within the Church, the plague of AIDS, rampant consumerism and self-defeating hedonism, the Holy Father stands as a singularly courageous and reliable role model.

“You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14). This was the Pope's theme in Toronto.

He challenged young people, as “salt,” to preserve the faith and to pass it on intact to others. “Do not be conformed to this world,” he said, citing St. Paul, “but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.”

And as “light,” he is urging the young to illuminate the darkness and reflect the glory of God: “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

“Come,” the Holy Father invites us with open heart, “and make the great avenues of Toronto resound with the joyful tidings that Christ loves every person and brings to fulfillment every trace of goodness, beauty and truth found in the city of man.”

Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of philosophy at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario.