Many owe a lot to Pope John Paul II, who will be beatified on May 1. Perhaps none owe him more than today’s young adults who meant so much to him.
Leaders of all stripes emerged in the 20th Century but only Pope John Paul thought to convene the world’s young people and offer a vision to the leaders of tomorrow. Youth responded to him too, proven when they stunned the world as they packed the streets around St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to bid him farewell on the eve of his death and at his funeral Mass in 2005.
Meetings with youth marked every one of the pope’s many pastoral visits around the world, but when it comes to youth he is most remembered for World Youth Days, the celebrations he launched in 1985, and which continue today. Through these events, which began in Rome in 1985, and continued with him through Toronto in 2002, he touched youth in a unique way. By 2002, he had drawn millions to these international gatherings in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1987), Santiago de Compostela, Spain (1989), Czestochowa, Poland (1991), Denver, Colorado (1993), Manila, the Philippines (1995), Paris, France (1997), Rome (2000) and Toronto (2002). Built on this strong foundation, WYD continues under Pope Benedict XVI, and millions more youth met with Pope Benedict in Cologne, Germany in 2005, Sydney, Australia in 2008, and soon will meet with him in Madrid, for WYD 2011.
Pope John Paul held special appeal for young people. He tapped into their idealism with a message that they are the ones to bring peace to the world. He bantered with them responding to their chants “John Paul II, we love you,” with “John Paul II, he loves you too,” in the language of whatever country in which the event took place. He called them to be holy, brought tears to their eyes; his words touched their hearts and souls.
He reminded young people that there were no limits to what they could do with God.
World Youth Day is for the hardy. It involves hiking for miles to a site of an all-night vigil marked by prayer with the pope, Scripture, community and song. The following day the young people participate in a Mass celebrated for them by the pope himself. Some years it has rained, leaving young people coated in mud. Other years it has been chilly. Other years, hot. Always, the event has inspired both participants and observers.