John Paul II Knew How to Use Symbols, Says Prelate

Especially When Speaking to Youth

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WARSAW, Poland, SEPT. 18, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Pope John Paul II demonstrated that profound and real communication with youth can take place through symbolic actions, says a Vatican official.

Archbishop John Foley, the president of the Pontifical Council of Social Communications, made these comments Friday at a meeting of the European Bishops’ Committee on Media in Warsaw. The meeting is studying the relationship between the mass media, the language of youth and the transmission of faith.

The Vatican official gave several examples of how John Paul II used symbolic actions to communicate with young people.

“I think some of the last words and gestures of Pope John Paul II spoke eloquently to young people — and they knew it,” said the archbishop.

“As the late Holy Father lay dying, he was told of the large number of young people in St. Peter’s Square, and he was reported to have said: ‘I have waited for you, and you have come.’ He loved young people, they knew it, and they loved him; it was as simple as that,” said Archbishop Foley, 69.

Embracing the cross

“Last Holy Week,” continued the archbishop, “Pope John Paul was unable to go to the Colosseum for the Way of the Cross, and he followed it on television from his private chapel. The only thing he was unable to see were the images transmitted from behind him in his chapel as he watched the progress of the Way of the Cross.

“At one point, someone gave him a large crucifix which he held in his right hand balanced on his right knee; when the seminarians read in various languages the title of the Twelfth Station, ‘Jesus Dies on the Cross,’ the Holy Father took the cross and held it close to him; he literally embraced the cross.

“I don’t have to tell you that I was in tears.”

“Pope John Paul II had a gift for very moving symbolic actions,” said the archbishop.

The late Pope admitted himself that he didn’t plan such actions, said Archbishop Foley, but he did acknowledge that he knew the “value of symbols.”

Archbishop Foley recounted how John Paul II explained that “the word ‘symbol’ comes from the Greek ‘symboein’ — to bring together. It is the opposite of the Greek word ‘diabolein,’ to break apart, which is the origin of our word for the devil, diabolical. Symbolic actions can bring people together in love.”

Can’t be phony

The president of the Pontifical Council of Social Communications said that using symbols will only be effective if they are “sincere and authentic, as were the symbolic actions of Pope John Paul II. They cannot be phony or forced and insincere — or else we risk doing more harm than good.”

“Pope John Paul reached young people by word and by action — and he had a gift for creating media events,” Archbishop Foley said. “World Youth Day is a prime example.”

The archbishop also gave as an example the way in which Benedict XV spoke to the youth at the 20th World Youth Day in Germany.

The Holy Father not only related “beautifully to young people,” said the prelate, “but there was a real hush as they listened to his words.”

The archbishop added: “We should never underestimate what young people are ready to listen to — as long as we truly speak to their minds and hearts."

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