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John Paul II remembered fondly

Meghanne Downes | Friday, April 8, 2005

Veronica Denton vividly remembers Pope John Paul II telling the youth in the crowd to carry on his mission since “they were young and he was old.” She was at World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto and the crowd erupted into a chant of “the pope is young, the pope is young.”

“He laughed quietly and said that 81 is not the same as 18 or 20,” the Notre Dame senior said. “He was old and he was relying on us to continue the work he had begun.”

This explanation describes the backbone of the pope’s mission to reach out to youth and to speak directly to the individuals whom he called the “lifeblood of the Church.”

Beginning in 1985, World Youth Day has brought hundreds of thousands of young Catholic adults together to learn about their faith and to encourage greater ministry and involvement in the Church.

“World Youth Day is the Church’s day for youth and with youth. This idea is not an alternative to ordinary youth ministry, often carried out with great sacrifice and self-denial,” Pope John Paul II wrote to Cardinal Eduardo Francisco Pironio in May 1996. “… By aiming to foster greater fervor in apostolate among young people, on no account the Church desires to isolate them from the rest of the community, but rather make them the protagonists of an apostolate which will spread to the other ages and situations of life in the ambit of ‘new evangelization.'”

John Cavadini, chair of the theology department, believes the pope’s calling stemmed from his desire to reassure young adults in this secular culture to embrace their ideals and their hopes instead of their fears.

“I think he wanted to institutionalize his own commitment to young people, and to institutionalize his commitment to preach the Good News to them,” Cavadini said. “He placed a lot of hope in the youth of the world to act as agents of change for the better.”

Denton said the pope offered youth hope and the ability to build upon his “foundations of renewal.”

“I know that I and other young people need world leaders to recognize our potential to make a difference in the world and call us to fulfill that potential,” Denton said.

Several said the pope’s commitment to youth attracted many young adults to uphold their Catholic faith, creating a movement of heightened awareness, Notre Dame sophomore Molly Harding said. She added that recognition from high-ranking Church officials propelled this awareness, empowering youth to take ownership of their faith.

Harding witnessed this commitment and reaffirmation of faith when she attended World Youth Day in Toronto. She said the pope united the faithful across barriers of language and culture, adding the connections she made with other pilgrims were “indescribable.”

“I entered an individual, but became a member of something much larger and more meaningful that I wasn’t even aware existed,” Harding said.

Since World Youth Day began in 1985, over a million young adults between ages 16 and 35 have similarly been united in faith and encouraged to carry the Church’s message into the future.

Theology professor Timothy Matovina said the youth’s admiration for Pope John Paul II’s presence, charisma and integrity furthered his goal of inviting the youth to embrace their faith. He also said the pope’s dedication toward the youth movement could be designated as one of Pope John Paul II’s top three influences on the Catholic Church, with the others being the internationalization of the papacy and the appointment of more than 90 percent of the world’s bishops to exercise his goals.

Matovina highlighted the importance of Pope John Paul II’s recognition that the youth weren’t just leaders of the future but could offer value leadership within the Church today.

“He expressed tremendous confidence and belief in youth,” Matovina said. “What he was always saying to young people is you are blessed by God and you have a calling to greatness … there is a tremendous optimism and hope for young people.”

For Matovina, the pope’s connection to pilgrims worldwide, specifically the younger generations, is evidenced in the reactions to the Pope’s death seen in the media and stories he heard in the classroom from students who shared their own personal experiences.

Though Cavadini was hesitant to compare Pope John Paul II’s connection to the youth to his predecessors, he said he did not believe other pontiffs expressed such a continuous desire and outreach to youth as Pope John Paul II.

“Pope John Paul II could communicate affection very powerfully, and this warmth or affection was so obviously unfeigned that it evoked an affection and admiration in return,” Cavadini said. “Young people respond, as they should, to idealism and to those who obviously care about them.”

The pope’s ability to connect with the youth in his flock was not solely confined to the annual World Youth Day events.

Colleen O’Brien, a Saint Mary’s junior who prayed the rosary with the pope last year, said the pope strove to make a connection with the youth, an often-overlooked group, and told them “Be not afraid.” She wondered what the state of the Church would be if Pope John Paul II had not taken the initiative to focus on the youth, adding the pope taught through being an example of holiness.

“He let us see that holiness is not just some pious wish that can never really be attained,” O’Brien said. “It is real and realistic; it is something worth aspiring toward … This call to holiness gives living breath to the faith and makes it not only part of our lives but our entire lives.”

Many said the pope was effective because of his genuine approach of reaching out toward the young adults instead of simply believing the youth would automatically embrace the Church and uphold its teachings.

Ashley Oberst, a Saint Mary’s sophomore, believes this action was necessary for the Church’s survival, adding that other Christian faiths have also recognized the importance of including youth. She cited the growth in youth groups across the country as evidence of the youth renewal.

“Educating youth to take action, whether that means voting in a national election, or writing a letter to the local newspaper about a recycling program, seems to be the key factor in our American society today, and it will continue to be an issue for the Catholic Church,” Oberst said.

Though Oberst did not attend a World Youth Day event, she said the pope’s focus on youth inspired her to become more entrenched in her faith. She believes the popularity of this movement in the church inspired youth to voice their opinions on politics and technology in light of their beliefs.

“Because I know someone influential was rooting for me, so-to-speak, I have since challenged myself to learn more about topics facing our society and how my faith may help me to take a stance on an issue,” Oberst said.