The past week has been filled with memories of the past 26 years of the Pontificate of Pope John Paul II. Somehow the theme of "opening doors" and "crossing thresholds" won't leave me nor will some extraordinary moments in St. Peter's Square.
How well I remember that warm night of October 16, 1978. I was a nineteen-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.
On that first night in 1978, Pope John Paul II stood on the loggia of St. Peter's Basilica and opened his arms, his heart and his mind to the world. His refrain would become: "Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!"
Who can forget the powerful images of the Holy Father's visit to Canada in 1984? And again in 1987? From Vancouver to Newfoundland, from the First Nations longhouse in Midland to the origins of the Church in Quebec, the Holy Father criss-crossed this vast country from sea to sea to sea. fulfilling remarkably his role of "Successor of Peter" but even more as "Successor of Paul", taking the Church off the banks of the Tiber River in Rome and bringing it to the farthest corners of the earth.
There are few places on this planet that have not been touched by Pope John Paul II. He opened the doors to millions of human hearts, bringing to women and men of every race, nation and culture, a message of hope; a message telling us that human dignity is rooted in the fact that each human being is created in the image and likeness of God.
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". How can we ever forget the touching scenes of World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, when this old man, bent with old age and infirmity, haltingly descended the stairs of a plane at Pearson Airport and united people of all races, languages and ways of life?
He truly made us discover our youthfulness, generosity and joy as he invited us to become salt and light in a world, a society and a culture that is often devoid of the flavour of the Gospel and the light of Christ. It is said that joy is the perfume that is left behind when God has passed by. I have no doubt in my mind that God visited us through World Youth Day 2002.
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 have also seen and understood themselves that way as well. Very few leaders have ever had such an impact on young people as this leader has had. He opened the doors of his heart to young people and they opened wide the doors of their lives to him. The young people of the Generation of John Paul II love him.
There was one more scene in St. Peter's Square that took place this past Friday evening. As tens of thousands of people gathered and kept vigil into the night, their eyes fixed on several windows on the third floor of the Apostolic Palace, Archbishop Angelo Comastri, the Vicar General of Vatican City led the throng in praying the Mysteries of Light of the Rosary.
The cameras that panned the crowds revealed people of every colour, race, age. it was truly a universal scene. They were John Paul II's people. As he began the ancient prayers, Archbishop Comastri spoke to the crowd: "Throughout his life, John Paul II opened countless doors to human hearts across the face of the earth. He invited us to open the doors of our hearts to Christ and his Good news." Archbishop Comastri concluded by saying: "Now it is Christ who will open wide his doors to the Pope." What a grand welcome it must have been!
The Pope's last recorded words were given to us yesterday as he lay dying. Having heard the voices of 50,000 young people singing in St. Peter's Square on Friday evening, his secretary told John Paul II that thousands of young people were singing and praying in the square. He uttered these final words: "I sought you out and now you have come to me... I thank you." What fitting words to describe the centerpiece of his Papacy: young people.
John Paul II has left his mark not only on Catholics and Christians, but on this world. He will be remembered as one of the great figures of the 20th century, who helped us cross the threshold into the new millennium. May we learn from his steadfastness and courage, his greatness and humanity. May we learn from him how to build bridges and open doors for the people of our time.