Happy Birthday to a Young and Holy Pope!
Before August 2000, the world had never seen 2 million young people in one spot. “You are young,” the enthusiastic boys and girls cried out to Pope John Paul II during the World Youth Day vigil in Tor Vergata on the outskirts of Rome.
“Young?” he replied, smiling. “A youth of 80 years of age!”
On May 18, the “young” Pope will turn 84.
I find it meaningful that he celebrated his last two birthdays with youth and with holiness.
On May 18, 2002, he met with 7,000 young people from Rome to mark the third centenary of the presence of the Christian Brothers' Schools in Italy. “Happy Birthday, Holy Father!” the youths sang, accompanied by their Neapolitan orchestra.
A year later, his birthday coincided with the proclamation of four new saints — a Polish bishop, an Austrian nun and two Italian foundresses of religious congregations.
“There is no age that is an obstacle for a perfect life,” the Holy Father said during the homily of the canonization Mass. ”There is no age — we may add — that is an obstacle for a ‘young’ life.”
Youth and holiness: the two sides of the same 84-year-old soul. Holiness is, by nature, youthful. Spiritual youth is, essentially, saintly.
Holiness and youth: the two sides of the key to unlock John Paul's consequential pontificate. “To believe and to love: This is the program of your pontificate,” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said last year, congratulating the Pope on his birthday. “You show us, tirelessly, the face of Christ, the face of the merciful God.”
Youth and holiness will be somehow visible in the extraordinary way the Pope celebrates his birthday — with an ordinary day of work. There is no public Mass, no official gathering, no extra free time. It is not a day off for the Vatican staff and the Roman Curia. The Holy Father prefers to celebrate the feast of his patron saint, St. Charles Borromeo, Nov. 4, and the anniversary of his election as Bishop of Rome on Oct. 16.
The only unusual event that day will be the special dinner cooked by the Polish nuns who look after the Pope. They are nuns of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, founded in Krakow in 1894 by Polish Bishop Sebastian Pleczar, whom the Pope elevated to the altars 365 days ago. One of the nuns, Sister Germana, will prepare a cake for dessert, John Paul's favorite course.
If the Holy Father would ask for something that day, he would ask for prayers, as he did last year, “so that God will help me to fulfill faithfully the mission he has entrusted to me.”
The Pope's birthday will be preceded and followed by holiness and youth. On May 16, the Holy Father will canonize Blessed Gianna Beretta Molla, a doctor, wife and mother who, in her fourth pregnancy, accepted the risk of death from cancer rather than abort the baby girl she was expecting. She died in 1962 at age 39.
On June 5, Christ's Vicar will travel to Bern, Switzerland, to take part in the first National Meeting of Swiss Catholic Youth.
Unchangeable John Paul! As he grows older, he continues to grow young and holy.
“There is a Polish proverb,” the Pope said spontaneously to the 2 million youths who attended the 2000 World Youth Day. “It says: ‘Kto z kim przestaje, takim si? Staje,’ which means, ‘If you live with the youth, you will also become young.’ Thus, I come back rejuvenated.”
We, too, wish to be rejuvenated by living long with a young and holy Pope John Paul II.
Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches philosophy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome.
He can be reached at [email protected]
- May 16-22, 2004