Pope John Paul II’s pontificate ended as it had begun, with words directed specifically to young people.
Upon the Pope’s election, among the Holy Father’s first words to the young were, “You are the hope of the Church.”
While on his deathbed, John Paul, upon being informed that masses of young people were holding vigil outside his window, said, “I have looked for you. Now you have come to me. And I thank you.”
Sandwiched between these two utterances were the Pope’s actions and words to youth, especially his encounter with more than 11 million young people at the World Youth Day events over the past 19 years.
One cannot speak of the Pope without talking about his relationship and conversations with the young — a relationship that was a hallmark of his papacy. Those 30 and under are the JPII Generation. He is the only Pope they have ever known.
John Paul’s relationship with youths started long before Karol Wojtyla became Pope. It began with his experiences as a young priest assigned to the rural parish of St. Florian’s Catholic Church just outside of Krakow’s Old Town. There, Father Wojtyla developed friendships that would impact his entire papacy.
It is natural then to understand the Pope’s later response to the young, even amidst the skepticism of some bishops and even those in his own Curia. Impressed by the interest of youths who had gathered during his first pilgrimage to Paris in 1980, John Paul invited them back to Rome for Palm Sunday, 1985. When 250,000 showed up, the decision was made to repeat the invitation in 1986, followed by the first World Youth Day celebration held in Buenos Aires in 1987. After that, the event was continued biennially.
Modeled after the triduum, each pilgrimage attracted increasing numbers of youths ranging from 500,000 in Denver, to 1 million in Rome, and several million in Manila.
As he had done as a young priest, the Holy Father challenged them with the Gospel.
In Denver, he told the throng, “Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places like the first apostles who preached Christ and the good news of salvation in the squares of cities, towns, and villages. This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. … It is the time to preach it from the rooftops.”
In Toronto, he called upon the crowd to be “salt and light.”
The impact of World Youth Days cannot be underestimated. This was made abundantly clear to me during a telephone interview I conducted with Sister John Paul of the Ann-Arbor-based Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist while writing a story for the Register.
During the course of our conversation, Sister John Paul described to me how World Youth Day, and the Holy Father’s words to the crowd in Denver, had been the turning point in discerning her own religious vocation as a nun. After she had patiently answered all of my questions, she told me, “Hold on. There’s another sister here whom you need to talk to.” That sister told a strikingly similar story of discerning her vocation as a result of the Denver gathering.
However, the phone call didn’t end there. That sister proceeded to pass the phone to another, and she passed it on to one more. By the time I was finished interviewing all of them, nearly an hour later, I had spoken to four young religious sisters from a relatively recent religious community. They were all from different states, and each of them felt particularly moved by their experiences in Denver.
In doing research for my book, Young and Catholic: The Face of Tomorrow’s Church, and interviewing more than 300 young people, I learned that such experiences were common.
Not only have the Pope’s conversations with the young at World Youth Day led to religious vocations, but they have also led to other efforts to strengthen the Church: Young adult groups gather to discuss the Pope’s encyclical, Love and Responsibility. Teens have been inspired to embark on mission work to evangelize and aid their peers both at home and abroad.
Such efforts give evidence that the New Springtime, of which the Holy Father frequently spoke and wrote, is at hand. Its seeds have been planted and have taken root. The new growth is just now emerging. That growth is evident through World Youth Day and all of its fruits.
The Holy Spirit continues to work much as he did when he fell upon a young Jewish girl in Nazareth more than 2,000 years ago.
Tim Drake is the author of
“Young and Catholic:
The Face of Tomorrow’s Church”
(Sophia Institute Press, 2004).