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The Pope and the Young: What's not to Love?

By John Mallon

© 2005 by John Mallon

Television commentators are constantly marveling at the love young people had for Pope John Paul II, but frankly, as the cliché goes, "What's not to love?"

Here was a man who called young people with a message they got nowhere else, a call to their higher natures, not pandering to their baser instincts. 

Who would you love more, the person who calls you on the nobility that is within you and says it is possible to attain it, or someone who lowers the bar with the attitude that you're not going to reach very far, so just play it safe.

Sex, for example: John Paul II told the young that sex, like life was for giving not "getting." It is for giving love and life, unselfishly, within a lifelong love shared with the blessing of God and the Church in marriage. This is what we daydream about as we grow up, a special someone selected by God to share a life and family with.

Who grows up dreaming of a life of promiscuity jumping from bed to bed? The world says, "We know you're incapable of self-control or discipline so use a condom!"

This is the voice of despair. 

John Paul's was a voice of hope. He believed in and respected and loved the young. Is there anything a young person today longs for more than to be taken seriously, loved and respected? 

That is what John Paul gave them: hope, respect, love. He loved and respected them enough to call them to be better. When I heard him on Boston Common in 1979 I had just returned to the Church after a wasted youth in the pain of my sins. The Pope announced: "The Pope is your friend!" It seemed he was speaking just to me, but I knew everyone else heard it same way. It wasn't just rhetoric. He meant it and we knew it.

In a time of broken homes, working mothers and absent fathers, John Paul II said to the young, "you are worth my time and attention. I have nothing more important to do than be with you." He sent this message in establishing the World Youth Days. 

The Pope could, and did, meet with world leaders—who usually came to the Vatican to see him—but when John Paul went on his many travels he went to see the people, and always made time for the young. The young were not "less important" to him than world leaders and others of high office, in fact, there is evidence that the young were more important to him than the VIPs. The VIPs could tag along, but the Pope was there for his beloved young. He constantly told them "You are my hope!" Can you not love someone who tells you that?

Some pundits try to frame it that the young loved the Pope despite his moral teachings, but quite the opposite is true. They loved him because of his firm moral teachings. Today's young are literally survivors of abortion, divorce, all kinds of abuse, and have grown up amid the wreckage of the "sexual revolution" and the pain and heartbreak and death it has caused. Unlike their parents generation, to them virtue and morality is a wonderful novelty no one ever told them about before. It is the promise that life can be better, that there is a better way, and John Paul II was giving it to them.

They are a fatherless generation who found a loving father in him who pointed them to the Heavenly Father through Jesus. This is indeed Good News!

I traveled on a bus full of young people to World Youth Day in Denver in 1993. Whenever a news commentator tried to imply young people like him but not his teachings a huge "BOOOOO!!" would go up. They wore shirts proclaiming"100% Catholic!"One young woman told me on that trip that "We don't love the Pope because he's cute and cuddly, but because he tells us the truth, and we love him for it! No one else does!"

It is hard for Baby Boomers, the generation in constant rebellion, to grasp, that for their children the things their parents rebelled against, objective morality and religion for example, are the things their children want and even crave. The generational pendulum has swung back to the things that last.

The troubles of the Pope's young life are well known. He was alone in the world by the time he was 20, his immediate family had all died, and at this age he had to face the Nazi terror in his homeland. Auschwitz was only 20 miles from his home town. All alone he turned to God and God received him profoundly. He knew the pain of being young and alone, and he has not forgotten what is was like. 

The Pope knew the pain that the young suffer because he was one of them. he knows the trials of the young today amid broken homes, drugs, the alienation of loveless sex; and he went after them with the message of love—of God's love which came to his rescue as a young man trying to stay alive amid the cruelty of the Nazis in the town that he loved as he saw his friends disappear. He remembers.

Finally, in his last moments, he turned to his young friends who had taken up vigil outside his window as he lay dying and said, "I went looking for you. Now you have come for me. Thank you." Among his last words were to his beloved young people who came to sing to him and pray as he lay dying. 

What a Papa.

What a friendship.

Truly, what is not to love?


John Mallon is contributing editor for Inside the Vatican magazine.