John Paul II on Youth

World Youth Day, Denver

“As a young priest I learned to love human love. This has been one of the fundamental themes of my priesthood — my ministry in the pulpit, in the confessional, and in my writing. If one loves human love, there naturally arises the need to commit oneself completely to the service of ‘fair love,’ because love is fair, it is beautiful.”  
from Crossing the Threshold of Hope

In the chapter “Is there really hope in the young?” John Paul II discusses his life long work with the youth and why he discovered such hope in the young. He was committed to walking with them — he said the youth were open to relating to, even seeking out, authority figures if “they [could] see in them a wealth of human warmth and a willingness to walk with them along the paths they are following.” He did that throughout his life as a priest, bishop and Pope. He came to love human love — that is clear in his writings. It is a dominant theme of Redemptor hominis, Love and Responsibility and The Jeweler’s Shop. Human love, he said, ultimately seeks transcendence.

Love was the theme, love was the bond, of his priesthood. Thus he said, “It is this vocation to love that naturally allows us to draw close to the young.” Vocation as such arises from love: “In life, youth is when we come to know ourselves. It is also a time of communion. Young people, whether boys or girls, know they must live for and with others, they know that their life has meaning to the extent that it becomes a free gift for others. Here is the origin of all vocations-whether to priesthood or religious life, or to marriage and family.”

John Paul II gives sage advice to all parents, pastors, and mentors:

What is youth? It is not only a period of life that corresponds to a certain number of years, it is also a time given by Providence to every person and given to him as a responsibility. During that time he searches, like the young man in the Gospel, for answers to basic questions; he searches not only for the meaning of life but also for a concrete way to go about living his life. This is the most fundamental characteristic of youth. Every mentor, beginning with parents, let alone every pastor, must be aware of this characteristic and must know how to identify it in every boy and girl. I will say more: He must love this fundamental aspect of youth.

 The young person is a searcher; they want to know “the meaning of life.” We may look askance at such a search, or downplay its significance. But John Paul II points out that prior generations such as his had established reference points in their culture, acknowledgment of moral norms, the existence of God, the parables and teaching of the Gospel. Such cultural forms of transcendence, combined with the heroic lives led by many in the circumstances of world war II, pointed the way and inspired Wojtyla as a young man.

But today, he says the young enjoy a freedom won by others and they are given a culture of consumerism. The heroic call is harder to discern. In Fides et ratio the Pope is very critical of the teachers of the youth. He mentions their failure to establish signs of meaning and transcendence:

For it is undeniable that this time of rapid and complex change can leave especially the younger generation, to whom the future belongs and on whom it depends, with a sense that they have no valid points of reference. The need for a foundation for personal and communal life becomes all the more pressing at a time when we are faced with the patent inadequacy of perspectives in which the ephemeral is affirmed as a value and the possibility of discovering the real meaning of life is cast into doubt. This is why many people stumble through life to the very edge of the abyss without knowing where they are going. At times, this happens because those whose vocation it is to give cultural expression to their thinking no longer look to truth, preferring quick success to the toil of patient enquiry into what makes life worth living. Fides et ratio §6

The youth need teachers to live the vocation to give “cultural expression” to transcendence, to pass along to the youth the “valid points of reference” for their life’s decisions.

John Paul II had great hope because the young sought him out and they recognized the call to love. “Young people are always searching for the beauty in love. They want their love to be beautiful. If they give in to weakness, following models of behavior that can rightly be considered a ‘scandal in the contemporary world’ (and these are, unfortunately, widely diffused models), in the depths of their hearts they still desire a beautiful and pure love. This is as true of boys as it is of girls. Ultimately, they know that only God can give them this love. As a result, they are willing to follow Christ, without caring about the sacrifices this may entail.”

The young sought him out because they sought Christ. In fact he said that the youth invented World Youth Day, not the Vatican. “No one invented the World Youth Days. It was the young people themselves who created them. Those Days, those encounters, then became something desired by young people throughout the world. Most of the time these Days were something of a surprise for priests, and even bishops.” John Paul II recognized in the young “an immense potential for good and for creative possibility.”  He taught them, yes, but he could draw near to them because he would listen: Whenever I meet them in my travels throughout the world, I wait first of all to hear what they want to tell me about themselves, about their society, about their Church.” John Paul II reminded the reader that on the very day of “the inauguration of my papal ministry, on October 22, 1978, at the conclusion of the liturgy, I said to the young people gathered in St. Peter’s Square: ‘You are the hope of the Church and of the world. You are my hope.'”

His hope was not disappointed. The young he touched and influenced are continuing to respond to vocation to priesthood and religious life, and to the call to fair love in marriage.

He recognized that “the young are searching for God, they are searching for the meaning of life, they are searching for definitive answers.” He was not afraid to share the gospel with them and to lay out the full demands of the Gospel. He also led them to see “that they perceive Christ in the Church, Christ who walks through the centuries alongside each generation, alongside every person. He walks alongside each person as a friend.” Friendship with Christ. That is what the youth need most of all. How true are the Pope’s concluding sentence in this chapter: “An important day in a young person’s life is the day on which he becomes convinced that this is the only Friend who will not disappoint him, on whom he can always count.” I hope that we can bring the young to know this friendship.

In 2000, at the mount of the beatitudes, John Paul II ended his homily to youth with a simple and direct prayer to Jesus, containing very similar sentiments:

Listen to these generous young hearts! Continue to teach these young people the truth of the Commandments and the Beatitudes! Make them joyful witnesses to your truth and convinced apostles of your Kingdom! Be with them always, especially when following you and the Gospel becomes difficult and demanding! You will be their strength; you will be their victory! O Lord Jesus, you have made these young people your friends: keep them for ever close to you! Amen.

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