Observer Viewpoint | Friday, April 8, 2005
When Pope John Paul II passed away Saturday, he left a 26-year legacy of leadership, more than enough time to span most college students’ lives. His longevity and his visibility – he made more public appearances and traveled to more countries than any pontiff before him – made him the face of Catholicism for millions of young Americans.
His World Youth Days, begun in 1985, set a tone of outreach and hope that reminded Catholic young adults of the critical role they play in the future of the Church.
But what made John Paul II pivotal for the college generation was the action he prompted young Catholics to take in the present.
After taking leadership of a global congregation still polarized after Humanae Vitae and Vatican II, the pope wasted no time asserting his opinions. He defended conservative doctrine on birth control, premarital sex, women’s ordination and homosexuality against pressing cultural forces. Coupled with his public persona and inclusive aim, these consistently staunch positions took on a powerful force. And for those growing up in the Church, John Paul II’s Catholicism dictated their experiences.
The pope’s strong stances inspired strong reactions, especially from the youth eager to shape the Church – whether by pushing the envelope or staying the course. And nowhere is this more apparent than on the campuses of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s.
There’s the roommate who advocates for a gay-straight alliance. There’s the RA who plays the organ at Mass. There’s the acquaintance who won’t tell her mom she takes birth control. There’s the friend who goes to the Grotto every night. Young Catholics here run the spectrum from traditional to progressive, but their investment in the Church and ownership of their faith is genuine.
John Paul II can take much of the credit. Through his extensive outreach, belief in our generation and decisive convictions, the pope galvanized the youth – and in doing so, left his mark on the Church for years to come.