Today marks the first anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II. In last Sunday's column, I wrote about the lessons we learned from his very public dying.
Today I would like to look at one of his most significant legacies: The unique relationship he forged and enjoyed with young people during his 26 year Pontificate.
I will never forget the scenes of John Paul II's funeral that the world experienced in Rome one year ago.
More than half the crowd of four million plus was composed of young people who had trekked to Rome from every part of the world. Such a thing would have been unthinkable 25 years ago!
They streamed into St. Peter's Square in interminably long lines - carrying backpacks, sleeping bags, blankets, pictures, flags, water bottles and radios - and after 12-15 hour waits, wept openly as they passed for 15-20 seconds before the body of an old man lying in state in St. Peter's Basilica.
This man who had spent his life preaching that restraint and self-sacrifice were more important than pleasure and excess. Then on Friday morning, April 8, 2005, millions more young people watched the funeral of someone who told them to become "Saints of the new millennium," to be "the salt of the earth and light of the world," and to spend their lives serving others before satisfying themselves.
Why were young people the world over so deeply affected by the death of Pope John Paul II, leaving pastors, parents, teachers and cynics scratching their heads in confusion? Why would teenagers and young "twenty somethings" feel so close to an old Polish man - a Church leader - who told them what to do? I have done a lot of thinking and reflecting on these things, especially since World Youth Day 2002.
I believe that in John Paul II, young people found a solid point of reference. They related so well to him because they knew that as a young man, Karol Wojtyla struggled to discern his vocation, his unique place in God's big scheme of things. He worked in a rock quarry. He lost his parents at a young age. He had a rich social life of a young man of his time, including serious friendships with both young women and men. When he began his university studies, he intended to live his life as a committed lay Christian, as an actor or writer or director in the theater, perhaps later a professor of language.
It was only after much serious reflection that he came to a different understanding - that God had chosen him for the priesthood and that there could only be one answer on his part. He lived under the great and tragic ideologies of the last century. He didn't back down, nor did he stop dreaming of something better.
Young people today need heroes like John Paul II and they don't want to live just on the surface. In a world that constantly panders to the young, John Paul II presented a challenging Church that combined the truth with charity and pastoral care.
In the 1970s, after the Second Vatican Council, in our attempts to be "avant garde," relevant and prophetic, we allowed many traditions to fall by the wayside.
Now it is the younger generation themselves who are reviving devotional practices more familiar to their grandparents than their parents. Though these same young people are more involved in traditional conservative religious practices, they're also very receptive to social justice messages and they are actively involved in serving the poor and helping to bring about systemic changes in the world and in society.
Inspiring for me
Their own faith and commitment have been inspiring and edifying for me and for many of my generation who simply don't know who we are and where we are going any more.
We are tired of the old causes and ideologies to which we have committed ourselves - causes and ideologies that didn't deliver the goods!
Leaders of other faiths, including Jews and Muslims throughout North America in particular, are saying they, too, have noticed a renewed interest in traditional religious practices among young people who are engaged in their religion, raising the possibility that the John Paul II generation of Catholics may simply be mirroring a larger generational trend.
There was no mediocrity, fatigue or heaviness in John Paul II's message to young people. The Polish Pontiff set the bar high, and he lived above it. The old warrior was clear and uncompromising in his expectations of young people, but he was neither condescending, pedantic or incomprehensible in his approach. John Paul II genuinely cared about young people and followed through by focusing time, attention and resources on them. He enacted in his life the line in the classic movie Field of Dreams: "If we build it, they will come." Because he knew deep down inside that if the Church doesn't build something for young people, they will likely go elsewhere. And they do go elsewhere. And too often, those elsewheres are dangerous and very scary places.
As he lay dying one year ago today, his personal secretary, now Cardinal Stanislas Dziwisz of Krakow, held the Pope's hand as they listened to the prayers and songs in the square below. Dziwisz told the Holy Father: "Listen, they have come in great numbers. They are here for you." Forcing himself to speak, the Pope uttered painstakingly: "I have looked for you and now you have come to me. I thank you." These were among his final words on April 2, 2005. How fitting to describe the centerpiece of his life, Papacy, and his enduring legacy to humanity: A bridge to young people and the future generation.
Though broken and bent at the end of his earthly pilgrimage, John Paul II crossed the threshold of history, standing tall, as a giant and a real hero. Perhaps that is why his "dear young friends" loved him as they did.