When Pope John Paul II lay dying in his Vatican apartment, there was a story doing the rounds which struck a chord with youth ministers. The story goes that, as St Peter’s Square was filling with people, the Holy Father was told that many of them were young. He responded with joy, saying “I have searched for you, and you have come to me.”
I was lucky enough to be in Rome the week before the Pope died. The only time I have visited the Eternal City. We were present for the Wednesday audience in St. Peter’s Square - the Pope’s last pubic appearance - and then spent a few days trotting the regular Roman tourist/ pilgrimage trail before flying home on the Friday. On the Thursday night we stopped off at St. Peter’s Square one last time on the way back to our hotel. It seemed right. I remember standing in the centre of the square. I prayed for youth ministry, among other things, and reflected on the power that the place had.
At that point, the Square was almost completely deserted. A few hours later news came through that the Pope’s condition had deteriorated and the square started to fill. It would stay fairly full for the next few weeks.
Whether true or not (it’s certainly hard to verify) the story of John Paul’s reaction to the youth in that crowd reminds us of a very important aspect of his pontificate. Both parts of his reported statement were completely true. He had searched for the young like no Pope before, and they had responded generously. He had transformed the way that the Church regarded and worked with young people. Those of us who grew up during the last pontificate, and those of us who work with young people now, will always be indebted to that work.
I read the decree of beatification in passing yesterday, and one thing in particular caught my eye: Section five, titled “Attention to the youth and the meaning of [World Youth Day].” Ordinarily, youth ministry doesn’t feature in anything this official, but it seems as though this aspect of the late Pope’s work rates not only a mention, but an inclusion in his case for sainthood.
I am not one of those who believes that the World Youth Days alone are responsible for the revival in youth ministry we have seen in recent years. There are numerous other factors and, in any case, a lot of projects date from slightly earlier. But nevertheless, John Paul’s impact on youth ministry cannot be discounted, or even easily gauged.
So what exactly did the soon-to-be-Blessed Pope John Paul II do for young people and youth ministry? He emphasised and challenged the role of the laity more then perhaps any other Pope in history, meaning that young people - and those who worked with them - had far greater scope; He supported new movements and new approaches, which have done so much to enrich the mainstream efforts of diocees and parishes. And, yes, he established those World Youth Days, which (though not a kick-start for everything) are probably just about the greatest individual piece of youth ministry we have ever seen. Indeed, this morning’s announcement that the Blessed John Paul II will be the patron of this summer’s World Youth Day in Madrid is, frankly, a no-brainer.
The list of his influences on youth ministry go on and on. But I think the main thing that JP2, as young people called him, gave to them, was his clear love for them. I have heard numerous priests, bishops and cardinals speak to young people. For the most part, they have all been able to craft sound, challenging messages. You don’t get into senior positions in the Church without being able to do that. But JP2 had something more. It’s not that these other men did a bad job, but that’s what makes the Saints (or the beatified) special. They put even other great men in the shade.
What John Paul knew was that it wasn’t simply enough to have a message, but that it was also about the relevance and the love with which you said it.
He had the sound and challenging sermons, but he had something more too. One story still told about JP2 and World Youth Days comes, I think, from Denver in 1993. The young people chanted “JP2 - we love you” as they often would, and JP2 stepped forward to the microphone and in his gentle, humble, loving, playful accent, responded with “JP2 - he loves you too!”
Those five words mattered.
The young people knew that he loved them. And they knew that his saying so wasn’t for their entertainment or for his own glory. It was a statement from the heart of the Church that they were valued, and that their culture - chanting and all - was an important part of their identity in that Church. And so, JP2 waved his hands when they were waving theirs, he entered into their jokes and traditions, and he spoke in a way which made sense to their lives and their experiences.
He took the spirit which had encouraged him as a priest to take young people on outdoor adventure trips into the local mountains, and brought it with him to his pontificate. As the decree of beatification reminds us, he recognised that youth was a marginalised culture which, if Christ was to reach it, needed ministering to in its own distinctive way, every bit as much as the poor, the infirm, or the inhabitants of far flung places.
Perhaps one of the most iconic moments we saw in St. Peter’s Square in 2005 came during the funeral Mass, presided over by the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Josef Ratzinger. The joy in the Square was as clear that day as the “Santo Subito” banners. It was a young, fresh joy which encapsulated the last 27 years perfectly.
Toward the end of the Mass, Card. Ratzinger stepped forward and prepared himself to lead - if memory serves - the Prayer after Communion. Problem was though, that he couldn’t. The young crowd in the Square were singing “Giovanni Paolo” and they didn’t want to stop. It wasn’t that they didn’t care that they were in Mass. This wasn’t irreverence. It was a belief that the joy and euphoria of Giovanni Paolo’s Pontificate was now part of the Church, and part of that Mass. It was okay to come alive with joy. Giovanni Paolo had taught them that this wasn’t a distraction from faith, but something at its heart.
The crowd eventually calmed, of course. As the commentating Archbishop Nichols reminded us, they were nothing if not good Catholic boys and girls. But - consciously or not - they sent an important message that day. They reminded the assembled College of Cardinals, that whichever one of them would soon replace the great Giovanni Paolo wouldn’t be turning the clock back on what he did.
To be fair to him, the presider at that funeral Mass, would learn this lesson and learn it well. He would take over from the great Giovanni Paolo and, despite his initial awkwardness with young people, he would become a very good youth pope himself. Not a patch on JP2, of course. But as those of us who were in Hyde Park that evening last September can testify, he hasn’t tried to wind things back. He was affected by Giovanni Paolo as much as any of us.
*It seems he also took notice of those 'Santo Subito' signs too!
Jack Regan is a School Chaplain in Sussex, and runs: www.CatholicYouthWork.com
*Editor's Note - On Saturday we received this message from the Catholic Communications Network:
"The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales welcome with great joy the news that the Venerable Servant of God, Pope John Paul II will be beatified by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, in May this year.
The choice of the First Sunday after Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday, for the Beatification ceremony in Rome has much significance. Pope John Paul II put Divine Mercy at the centre of his spiritual life, his apostolic testimony and his teaching.
It was also on the eve of this Sunday in 2005 that he surrendered his soul to the infinite mercy of his Lord and Saviour."