April 2, 2005. They were incredible scenes that I shall never forget. Hundreds of thousands of young people streamed into St. Peter’s Square . . . and wept openly before the body of an old man who was not a rock star, Olympic medalist or Hollywood icon. He was an elderly Pope who had just endured a public death before the eyes of the world.
On April 8, millions of people gathered in churches, halls, fields, public venues and schools across the Earth — many well before the crack of dawn — to watch the funeral of someone who told them to serve others before satisfying themselves.
That unforgettable week was filled with memories of the previous 26 years of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. The theme of “opening doors” and “crossing thresholds” hasn’t left me nor will those extraordinary moments in St. Peter’s Square ever be forgotten. They made me recall another evening when the eyes of the world were fixed on St. Peter’s Square, the night of Oct. 16, 1978.
I was a 19-year-old university student when the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church elected Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as the 264th Successor to the Apostle Peter. Something new was happening on the world scene and I can still see that radiant smile and hear that booming voice filling St. Peter’s Square. They called to Rome a man from a distant country, a youthful athlete who took the world and the church by storm. His refrain would become: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!” Those words were to mark my life and my priesthood.
John Paul II enjoyed an incredible popularity with young Catholics. At the World Youth Day in Rome in 2000, he called the young people of the world his “joy and his crown.” It’s not remarkable that the Pope saw his youthful friends as a metaphor of renewal and hope. What’s remarkable is that the young people also saw and understood themselves that same way.
This year commemorates the 25th anniversary of the institution of World Youth Days in the pastoral life of the universal church. Through World Youth Days and through reinvigorated youth and young adult pastoral ministry throughout the entire church, Pope John Paul II unleashed something totally new, unthinkable back in 1984 when he launched this bold pastoral plan.
Since the 2002 World Youth Day in Canada, I continue to meet thousands of young people in various parts of the world who speak about their experience in Canada and other countries. They speak of the way the Pope looked at them, loved and appreciated them, but also made them feel like they could be better and they could do more. Young people the world over use very similar words, almost like one universal refrain: “The Holy Father looked at me in a special way” and “He spoke to me.”
This was truly a great gift or charism of John Paul II. It is a quality of a mystic and a saint. He was able to live in the presence of God and to perceive God’s presence in the world and in the people he met. And he constantly invited others into that presence. Very few leaders have had such an impact on young people.
The phenomenon of World Youth Days has become a powerful seedbed for vocations to the priesthood, consecrated life and lay ecclesial ministries. Whether it is because those who have already sensed a call attend out of their strong faith, or because these events awaken young adults for the first time to the special call of God, World Youth Days can be moments of life-changing discernment. There is no doubt in my mind that a World Youth Day vocation harvest is now underway throughout the world.
I have often asked myself why young people responded to John Paul II as they did, especially in the final years of his pontificate. I am convinced that much has to do with the serious crisis of fatherhood afflicting the world today. Many people ask whether fathers are really necessary or even desirable for raising children. Contrary to the conviction of some people that an absent father’s role can be assumed by the mother, or by other male influences, the effect of fatherlessness on children is deeply alarming.
The unique relationship forged between John Paul II and young people had to do with fatherhood. In a world of delusions and illusions, John Paul II made things “fully real.” His spiritual fatherhood was a reflection of the fatherhood of God. In many cases the old Pope was the father that many young people never had and the grandfather they never knew. Fatherhood is ultimately about being and not doing. Pope John Paul II was a great role model who attracted love and loyalty because he embodied paternity, with its unique combination of strength and mercy.
One of the most profound lessons John Paul II taught us came in the twilight of his pontificate when he showed us that everyone must suffer, even the Vicar of Christ. Rather than hide his infirmities, as most public figures do, he let the whole world see what he was going through. In a youth-obsessed culture in which people are constantly urged to deny the ravages of time, age and disease, he reminded us that aging and suffering are natural to being human.
In April 2005, as John Paul II was nearing death from Parkinson’s Disease, the athlete was immobilized, the booming voice silenced and the hand that produced voluminous encyclicals was no longer able to write. But the most powerful message he preached came then, when he was unable to speak or move. It was in the passion of Karol Wojtyla that the world witnessed what authentic, human solidarity and communication were all about.
In Karol Józef Wojtyla we had a brilliant teacher, communicator and model of goodness and humanity, a wise communicator who would become a “Pontifex Massmediaticus.” This son of Poland and son of the Catholic Church died a very public death over a period spanning the penitential days of Lent and the beginnings of the Easter season. It was his last, great paternal lesson. The world stopped those days. The world remembered. The world prayed. The response was beyond belief.
Father Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO Salt + Light Catholic Television Network