Those who were children and young adults during John Paul II’s pontificate are now grown up. They belong to the generation that grew up while he was pope. Between him and these young people, there was a thread of understanding that lasted throughout the passing of years. These young adults listened to him and came to several encounters with him, even though John Paul II was getting older. His illness and weakness were becoming more and more apparent, but none the less they kept listening to him inspite the challenges of his teachings. The Youth saw in the Holy Father not only a man of faith, but also a man who enjoyed living out his authority with many young people.
I will briefly recall some of the most important thoughts and events of John Paul II’s relationship with young people.
Young people as the hope of the Church and the world
It is worth recalling an important statement, which is the common thread of His entire pontificate. On November 8, 1978, shortly after his election, around 10,000 young people gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica. John Paul II told them that they were his hope. He said, “Yes, my hope, because you are the promise of tomorrow. You are the hope of the Church and society. Contemplating you, I think with trepidation and with trust of what is in store for you in life and what you will be in the world of tomorrow, and I wish to leave you, as a viaticum for your lives, three thoughts: look for Jesus, love Jesus, bear witness to Jesus.” It is obvious that young people are the future of society, that they will acquire an education, a career, a job, they will take responsibility for their own lives, but even more so they will be responsible of their faith and the good of their country, their local community and even the good of the Church will depend of this commitment. Being hope for others, however, is more than merely being the future or a new generation. Hope is in that which constitutes the true good within a person, and of what will be made visible and realized in life. This is why John Paul II invited young people to open themselves to the action of Jesus.
During another meeting with young people from around the world in Rome, at Tor Vergata, on August 19, 2000, John Paul II acknowledged that it’s difficult for young people to believe in God in today’s world. Not only are there many temptations, not only are there many obstacles blocking the way to God, not only are there many lifestyles that act as if there were no God. John Paul II was nonetheless convinced that the sincere desire for happiness which characterizes a young person, combined with a living faith in Jesus, carries within itself a potential for that which is good. John Paul II expressed this during a meeting with young people at Tor Vergata: “It is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness […] It is He who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices , the choices that others would like to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to make something great of your life, to follow an ideal, to not let mediocrity consume you. He gives you the courage to strive with humility and perseverance for the perfecting of yourselves and your societies, making them more humane and fraternal.”
Years have passed, and the youths that heard these words then, are now adults. They probably have children of their own that are now growing up. It is difficult to say what is left in their hearts, but probably in many, remembering those moments and thoughts, they find the foundation of the decisions that determined the rest of their lives. Or they may be ashamed of decisions that turned them away from God and astray on the path of life.
I too belong to that generation that came close to John Paul II. In 1987 the Pope visited Poland. It was the time when I had passed my high school exams and had before me the decision of my career and the choice of which University I would attend. I followed the Pope’s visit. I participated in the meetings with him. I remember some of the phrases he said to the young Poles in Krakow. He said, among other things, that one’s youth can be lived well or can be lived poorly, as well as one’s whole life. To choose well, one must be demanding of oneself, one must see the purpose of thier life, one must be prepared for adversity, and for difficult situations. One must also be aware that Christ accompanies us in our choices and He supports us. The Pope told us afterwards that Christ does not promise an easy path, he does not promise pleasures, but he promises the meaning of life. He gives a prospective to our life (Krakow, June 10, 1987). One cannot escape this decision. Each one is free in making this choice. The words of John Paul II helped me in my decision to enter the seminary in Krakow, the same seminary where he prepared himself for the priesthood.
World Youth Day
Speaking of John Paul II and young people, World Youth Day cannot be overlooked. They were inaugurated in 1985 in Rome. The Pope decided that they would be held every year on Palm Sunday in each diocese, but also in the Eternal City. World Youth Days are also held every two years in selected countries. The first meeting was held in 1987 in Buenos Aires, followed by Santiago de Compostela (1989), Czestochowa (1991), Denver (1993), Manila (1995), Paris (1997), Rome (2000) and Toronto (2003). Pope Benedict XVI during his pontificate has already visited Cologne (2005) and presided over meetings in Sydney (2008) and Madrid (2011). Pope Francis, on the other hand, held several World Youth Days in Rio de Janeiro (2013), Krakow (2016), Panama (2019) and Lisbon (2023).
The event has become part of modern history. It also attracts the attention of social media. Very often we are amazed at the number of young people who participate, sometimes making great sacrifices. Undergoing various difficulties. What is even more impressive than the statistics, is the sight of young adults praying together. It is without a douby that these World Youth Days show the young face of the Church and, above all, they help many young adults to boldly admit their belief in Christ.
All of the Polish Pope’s speeches to the youth delivered during his pontificate make up the three full-bodied volumes of “John Paul II Speaks to Young People.Opera Omnia” edited by Ulrich Cyrille Miyigbena. Many of them can be found on the Internet. Excerpts can be read and reflected upon. There are also Videos of these meetings with young people available on the Internet. However, one document in particular is worth mentioning, namely the Apostolic Letter to the youth of the world.
Letter to young people around the world
This document was written by the Pope in 1985. Almost 39 years have passed, and many will probably say that it is no longer relevant, because so much has changed in the world. Nevertheless, it is worth searching for the text on the Internet in order to see the relevancy of the letter’s content. Given that it deals about each young person’s encounter with Christ. The underlying theme is a scene from the Gospel in which Jesus speaks to a young man who asks him how to live in order to be happy and obtain eternal life. John Paul II emphasizes that thye time of one’s youth is a richness in itself, because life is always open to man. So many possibilities, so many opportunities, prospects, but also so many dangers. The Pope explains that one cannot close oneself off from eternity, from God, that one cannot limit one’s life only to that which is temporal. Nor can one avoid making an examination of one’s conduct, one’s actions, whether they are good or bad. Here he has emphasized the role of the commandments and the role of one’s conscience. To be a person of conscience means to be a person that is both responsible and trustworthy.
Jesus looked at the young man with love and appreciation , he looked at that young man who sincerely confessed that he had kept the moral commandments in his life up to that point. However, he went away saddened because he was attached to worldly goods, from which he could not detach himself. Because of this attachment to worldliness, he chose not to follow Christ. John Paul II explains that very often in life a similar situation occurs, when we cannot reconcile our plans with our vocation. Our end should be to reconcile our plans with God, to open ourselves to his will, his commandments, and his grace which are available in the sacraments.
John Paul II underlines in this letter that the time of one’s youth should be used to recognize one’s talents, as a time to work on one’s formation and a time to learn to use one’s freedom properly. The Pope notes that young people are often critical of the various manifestations of evil they see in the world and the Church. To change things, it is necessary not only to protest, but to conquer evil with good; the manifestations of selfishness and insensitivity must be overcome with acts of love and concern for others.
John Paul II saw in young people the hope for a better, more humane and a more just world. Parents and teachers play a very important role in the process of forming young people. John Paul II is also called the pope of families, because of the many efforts he made to strengthen Christian families, to confront what was weakening Christian marriages and families. He also stressed on the importance of the role of schools and of transmitting to younger generations not only knowledge, but above all of instilling withing young people Christian and moral values.
When the Holy Father was dying in 2005, he heard that crowds of young people that came to St. Peter’s Square in order to pray for him. This is when he uttered the most significant words, “I was looking for you and now you have come to me and for that I thank you.” John Paul II sought an encounter with young people to help them live out their youth and to choose correctly a way of life that is both honest and noble.
Teano (Instituto Foscolo), January 25, 2024
Fot. L’Osservatore Romano