John Paul II and Youth — Sprouts of the New Springtime

Tim Drake on the Holy Father’s Devotion to Young People

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MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota, APRIL 15, 2005 ( Pope John Paul II sowed seeds of the new springtime — seeds of evangelization that are beginning to sprout in the lives of young Catholics, according to one observer.

Tim Drake, author of «Young and Catholic: The Face of Tomorrow’s Church» (Sophia Institute) shared with ZENIT how the Pope impacted so many individuals and why young people embraced him so passionately.

Q: You have written that John Paul II inspired a new generation of young Catholics to embrace a robust, committed Christian faith. How have you seen this play out?

Drake: It’s impossible to talk about John Paul II without talking about young people. From his earliest days as Pope until literally his last breath, he engaged in a preferential dialogue with them.

Among his first words to them were, «You are the hope of the Church.» And just hours before he died, John Paul said to the young people of the world, «I have looked for you. Now you have come to me. And I thank you.»

It’s easy to think that young people aren’t involved with the Church simply because they aren’t sitting next to us in the pew. But in researching my book «Young and Catholic: The Face of Tomorrow’s Church,» I discovered that the young are active in many other ways within the Church.

Catholic teen ministries such as NET Ministries and the Dead Theologian’s Society are booming. Through organizations such as Amigos for Christ and Youth for the Third Millennium, teens are seeking out service and evangelization opportunities both at home and abroad.

Young adults are gathering across the country to discuss the Holy Father’s works such as «Love and Responsibility» and the «theology of the body.» Young adults are gathering by the hundreds and sometimes thousands for Saturday and Sunday evening young adult Masses in places such as Denver’s Cathedral and the NET Ministries’ LifeLine Mass in St. Paul, Minnesota.

They are increasingly choosing authentically Catholic colleges and getting involved in Bible studies and devotional opportunities on secular campuses.

The seeds of the New Springtime that Pope John Paul II predicted are beginning to sprout. I have great hope for the future of the Church.

Q: What was it about John Paul II that was so attractive to youth?

Drake: They loved him because he loved them first. His pastoral friendship with young people began when he was just a young priest assigned to rural St. Florian’s Catholic Church outside of Krakow.

While working at the parish, Father Wojtyla served students at the Jagiellonian University, the Krakow Polytechnic and the Academy of Fine Arts. He visited students in the dormitories and got them to attend conferences on Christian doctrine.

He launched the parish’s first marriage preparation course. He traveled, hiked, skied and camped with the young. He held retreats and led intellectual discussion groups with young adults and young married couples.

When Cardinal Wojtyla became Pope, young people sensed his enthusiasm for youth and responded to him accordingly, chanting «John Paul II, We Love You.» And he responded, «Woo, hoo, hoo, John Paul II, He Loves You.»

At World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002, I watched the Holy Father during one of these exchanges. His health was already declining but not his genuine love for young people, which was evident for all to see: He joyously tapped his hand in rhythm to the chants and responded with a broad smile.

In John Paul II, young people encountered the love of Jesus himself: that’s what made him so attractive.

Q: How did the Holy Father translate Church teachings into something young people could understand and follow?

Drake: Unapologetically, he proclaimed the Gospel and lived it. Young people loved him because of his moral stands, not despite them.

For many who grew up in a fatherless generation, he was their father. He challenged them with the Gospel and called them to lives of holiness. He understood the difficulties of the teenage years and of the times in which we live. Yet, he never hesitated to call the young to something higher.

At Denver’s World Youth Day in 1993, John Paul told the young, «Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places like the first apostles who preached Christ and the good news of salvation in the squares of cities, towns and villages. This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. … It is the time to preach it from the rooftops.»

John Paul preached the Word — with his voice, with his deeds and, finally, with his suffering.

Especially near the end of his life, young and old were touched by this good man who, without embarrassment or complaint, picked up his crosses one after another: old age, Parkinson’s disease, immobility, and finally pneumonia and even the loss of that sonorous voice of his that had called so many to follow Christ. He carried each new cross with dignity for the entire world to see.

«Be Not Afraid,» the Holy Father said in 1978. As the years went by, it was obvious to all who had eyes to see that he was not afraid of growing old before our eyes. He was what he asked the young to be: «salt and light.»

An entire generation of young, active Catholics has accepted his teachings. That will have an impact for generations to come.

Q: How has John Paul II influenced young people’s vocations to the priesthood and religious life?

Drake: In a recent phone conversation, Sister John Paul of the Michigan-based Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, described to me how World Youth Day and the Holy Father’s words to the young gathered in Denver had been the turning point in discerning her own religious vocation.

Then she said, «Hold on. There’s another sister here you need to talk to.» That sister had also discerned her vocation as a result of the Denver gathering. But the phone call didn’t end there. She passed the phone to another sister, who passed it on to one more.

In that remarkable hour on the phone, I spoke to four nuns, all from different states, each of whom was particularly moved by her encounter with the Pope at World Youth Day.

In fact, claimed Sister John Paul, her vocation was a direct response to the Holy Father and his call. She concluded, «Every young person who has responded to a religious vocation in this country ties their vocation back to John Paul II. We’re not getting it from anyone else.»

While writing my book, «Young and Catholic,» I interviewed more than 300 youth and young adults, and found that such experiences were common. Many priests have told me similar stories as well.

Q: What part has World Youth Day played in reviving young Catholic faithful? How important is it for the next pope to continue holding this event?

Drake: World Youth Day is the epicenter of the revival of the faith of young people. When John Paul first proposed it, some bishops and even members of the Curia expressed skepticism. They didn’t think young people would respond, but respond they did.

Over the course of his papacy, more than 11 million young people accepted Pope John Paul II’s invitation to spend a week with him in prayer and pilgrimage.

If, as John Paul said, the youth are the hope of the Church, then it is critical that World Youth Day continues. No matter who the new pope may be, and no matter what his previous relationship with youth may be, young people will gather with him in Cologne this August.

John Paul renewed a dialogue first started by Christ; young people want that conversation to go on.

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