The Pope of the Youth

It was funny, really, watching the media try to figure out why the youth of the world so loved Pope John Paul II.

Here was a man who, even at the beginning of his papacy, was old enough to be their grandfather. He espoused the most radical “right-wing” agenda imaginable—speaking out against abortion, extramarital sex, and even contraception. He owned nothing—his entire wardrobe consisted of long white cassocks, and the only “ride” they ever saw him in was a popemobile.

He had nothing that we imagine youth to value. And yet they flocked to him, traveled across continents and over oceans just to see him. They chanted, “John Paul II, we love you!” (In one particularly charming film clip, he responded in that wonderful baritone voice, “Perhaps I love you more.”) Even as he lay on his deathbed, the square outside filled with thousands of young people.

And so the pundits tried to explain this enormous outpouring of youthful affection. These young people “disagreed with his policies” but admired his “consistency.” They liked the fact that he was “true to himself—his “authenticity” appealed to them.

Nice try.

The youth of the world loved John Paul II for myriad reasons, none of which had anything to do with a distant admiration for consistency.

There’s no doubt that Karol Wojtyla was a man blessed with enormous natural charisma. He had a youthful spirit and a playful sense of humor. The juxtaposition of that lightheartedness with the solemnity of his office tickled the young, just as it tickled all of us.

But that was only a small part of his appeal. Holiness perfects our natural gifts, and His Holiness had plenty of it. God used John Paul II to reach out to all of us, but particularly the youth, who are so close to His heart.

And so, the pope initiated the revolutionary concept of World Youth Day. Imagine any of the previous pontiffs presiding over enormous rallies consisting of hundreds of thousands of screaming teenagers. The Piuses may have been pious, but they never rocked a stadium.

John Paul II did—frequently. When I browse through the Vatican Web site, the only systematically organized collection of the Holy Father’s talks I can find is his talks to youth. They span the entire list of the World Youth Days, but they don’t stop there. One quickly gathers that, on every one of his 104 papal trips, he addressed at least one group of youth.

Did he do it because he loved to see fresh faces and hear, “John Paul II, we love you”? Probably, but there was clearly a lot more to it than that. He was fond of saying that young people are the future of the Church. It seems like a nice sentiment, until almost 27 years go by and we realize that those same youth are now the present of the Church.

Talk to any one of the really inspiring young seminarians or priests we’re blessed with in the Church today—and I mean absolutely any single one. I’ll bet you that young man was present at a World Youth Day somewhere, or that he learned about the Holy Father’s teaching at a youth group, or a Steubenville conference, or a Life Teen rally, or in some other Catholic context. And I’m sure he’ll tell you that he heard the call to the priesthood during or after that event. He’ll say that he is where he is today because of the papacy of Pope John Paul II. And he’ll go on to tell you that he doesn’t disagree with the pope’s “policies,” but rather that his ministry today is about promulgating the truths of the Faith in their fullness.

And it’s not just the young priests. All of the people who run the conferences and rallies and youth groups—they’re all in it because of John Paul II. Ask them, and they’ll tell you that they do what they do because they were inspired by the teachings of the Holy Father.

As do I, myself. My own ministry is—end to end—a product of the papacy of John Paul II.

I was 15 when Karol Wojtyla was elevated to the papacy. Seven years later, as a senior in college, I was first introduced to his work. My school, the University of San Francisco, sponsored a four-part speaker series on chastity, focusing primarily on the theology of the body. Revs. Hogan and LeVoir spoke, as did Msgr. William Smith.

I was, quite simply, blown away. I’d never heard the truths of the Faith presented so simply and so beautifully. More specifically, I’d never been told that respecting human sexuality is about finding and living love.

Up until that point, I had planned a career in corporate communications. But all of that changed when I discovered the theology of the body. I wanted to share it with the world.

Of course, I had no idea how. And so I went on with my life. I graduated and took a job in Silicon Valley. About a year later I received a phone call from a local pregnancy center. They were starting a speakers’ bureau and wanted me to speak on sexual morality.

And so I gave one talk and received five phone calls. Then I gave five talks and received 25 phone calls. And so it continues to this very day. Nineteen years later, I speak full-time and yet do no marketing. I didn’t make this ministry happen; it happened to me.

But it’s hardly confined to me alone. Think back a generation or two. Can you think of a time when there was so much lay Catholic activity—so many speakers, so many magazines, so many radio and television programs (even an entire network), all devoted to sharing the truths of our Faith?

This is what John Paul II called the “new evangelization.” He started it—all of it—and he did so deliberately and systematically. He spoke the ancient truths in new and exciting ways, and he reached out to the youth, whom he knew had the faith, energy, and enthusiasm to light a fire in the world.

More than that, he gave himself over completely to Christ. And in doing so, he unleashed a torrent of grace throughout the world.

I don’t believe any of this happened just because some of us came across the works of the Holy Father and liked them. I believe the actual unfolding of this worldwide new evangelization is the work of the Holy Spirit, and in particular a fruit of the grace of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.

So yes, the youth loved the pope, as did those of us former youth who grew up with him and whose ministries were formed by him.

We loved him because he didn’t talk down to us. He didn’t condescend; he didn’t water down his message. In- stead, he challenged us. He told us not to let our youth and inexperience hold us back but, instead, to put our lives fearlessly at the service of the gospel. In an era of anemic, Kumbaya-style youth ministry, that was a welcome message. He believed in us when so many others in the Church didn’t.

Most importantly, we loved him because he loved us. He loved us with a human love, certainly. He lit up in our presence. He took an interest in our culture. He seemed to understand our challenges.

But we saw in him a deeper love. The pope is supposed to be the Vicar of Christ—God’s visible presence on earth. John Paul II was that and more. He really did personify the love of Christ. It’s difficult for all of us—but particularly for teenagers—to grasp God’s love for us. But Pope John Paul II showed us what that love looks like. Christ’s love is tender. It’s playful. It’s challenging.

Just like the Holy Father’s love for us.

That’s why we always cried when we saw him. It was a spontaneous response to holiness. There were times I was literally a quarter-mile away from him and convinced I was far too tired for any kind of emotional response. One glimpse of that figure in white and I was reduced to tears, as was everybody around me. We just couldn’t help it.

Karol Wojtyla’s earthly life is over, but his work has just begun. In reaching out to the world’s youth, he started a fire that is just now beginning to burn. The generations of youth he inspired will be around for a long, long time sharing the love of Christ that they learned from their very Holy Father, Pope John Paul II.


  • Mary Beth Bonacci

    Mary Beth Bonacci is a Catholic speaker who talks about love, relationships, and chastity.

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