Popes Reaching Out to Young People

Youth Day Messages Center on Christ

By Father John Flynn

ROME, FEB. 11, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI invited young people to discover the true meaning of love in his message for World Youth Day, which this year will be observed at the diocesan level on Palm Sunday, April 1.

“Everybody feels the longing to love and to be loved,” the Pope observed in his recently published message. Yet, efforts in this endeavor are often marked by mistakes and failures, he continued. The Pontiff then offered three stages to follow to discover a true love.

The first stage is having God as our source of true love, and the second stage is the revelation of this love to us in the person of Christ. The third stage is when we show our commitment to God by loving him, and our brothers and sisters.

Both Pope John Paul II and the current Holy Father have used the occasion of World Youth Day to encourage young people to reflect on the meaning of their lives and the need enrich them through a more intimate relationship with God.

Love was also one of the central themes in the letter John Paul II wrote for the 1987 World Youth Day. Citing what he had written in his first encyclical, “Redemptor Hominis,” the Pope observed: “Man cannot live without love.”

This is even more so for the young, John Paul II continued. He told youth that it is vital not to look for happiness in the superficial attractions of hedonism, or to enclose themselves in egoism. The path to finding a true love is, instead, by giving priority to the values of the spirit and by recognizing and accepting the presence of God in our lives.

John Paul II also noted that this experience will lead to communicating this love to others: “The world anxiously awaits our witness of love, a witness born from a deep personal conviction and a sincere act of love and faith in the Risen Christ.

“This is what is meant by experiencing love and believing in it.”

Finding meaning in life

Another key theme in World Youth Day is the need to follow God in order to find the true meaning of our lives. In his message for World Youth Day 2006, Benedict XVI noted the need to follow God in order to find the true meaning of our lives. “It is not easy to recognize and find authentic happiness in this world in which we live, where people are often held captive by the current ways of thinking,” he wrote.

The Pope recommended that young people meditate often on the word of God, and allow the Holy Spirit to be their teacher. “The loving presence of God, through his word, is the lamp that dispels the darkness of fear and lights up the path even when times are most difficult,” said Benedict XVI.

In his letter, the Pontiff also invited young people to become more familiar with the Bible, and to build their lives on Christ: “There is an urgent need for the emergence of a new generation of apostles anchored firmly in the word of Christ, capable of responding to the challenges of our times and prepared to spread the Gospel far and wide.”

John Paul II, in his 1985 letter to the youth of the world, “Dilecti Amici,” written for the occasion of the United Nations’ International Youth Year, insisted on the vital need to be close to God. Reflecting on the example of the young man in the Gospel who asked Jesus what he needed to do gain eternal life (Mark 10:17-21) the Pontiff observed that today the equivalent question could be thus framed: “How must I act so that my life will have meaning and value?” (No. 4).

Christ’s answer, John Paul II continued, amounts to saying that only God is the ultimate basis of all values, and it is only God who can give the definitive meaning to our human existence. God gives this meaning because he is love, a love manifested in Christ’s sacrifice for us.

Christ at the center

In fact, bringing young people closer to Christ was for John Paul II the main objective of the World Youth Days. In a letter dated May 8, 1996, to Cardinal Eduardo Pironio, the then president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the Vatican body in charge of organizing the World Youth Days, the Pope said: “The principal objective of the days is to make the person of Jesus the center of the faith and life of every young person so that he may be their constant point of reference and also the inspiration of every initiative and commitment for the education of the new generations” (No. 1).

John Paul II noted that the World Youth Days are meant to be “providential events, occasions for young people to profess and proclaim faith in Christ with ever greater joy” (No. 2).

By participating in such an event young people will have an experience of faith and communion, “which will help to face the profound questions of life and to responsibly assume his or her place in society and in the ecclesial community.”

In his last letter to youth, written for World Youth Day 2005 held in Cologne, Germany, John Paul II again urged young people to follow Christ. The Magi, he commented, offered the Baby Jesus gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.

He wrote: “My dear young people, you too offer to the Lord the gold of your lives, namely, your freedom to follow him out of love, responding faithfully to his call; let the incense of your fervent prayer rise up to him, in praise of his glory; offer him your myrrh, that is your affection of total gratitude to him, true man, who loved us to the point of dying as a criminal on Golgotha” (No. 4).

John Paul II urged young people to resist the illusions and passing fads that only leave behind them a spiritual vacuum. Equally, he recommended they reject the seductions of wealth, consumerism and violence. “Worship Christ: He is the rock on which to build your future and a world of greater justice and solidarity,” John Paul II wrote (No. 5).

This task is far from easy in today’s world, as John Paul II admitted in his letter to young people for the Jubilee Year in 2000. “You will ask me: But is it possible today to be saints?” he commented (No. 3).

By ourselves it is indeed impossible, the Pope acknowledged. But, he continued, we are not alone in our journey. Turn to Jesus, he urged: “Rely on him; believe in the invincible power of the Gospel and place faith as the foundation of your hope.”

“Jesus walks with you, he renews your heart and strengthens you with the vigor of his Spirit,” John Paul II said.

Another theme often present in the World Youth Day messages is the hope the Church places in young people. In his apostolic letter “Dilecti Amici,” John Paul II commented on the importance of youth for the Church. “In this sense the future belongs to you young people, just as it once belonged to the generation of those who are now adults, and precisely together with them it has become the present reality” (No. 1).

Looking at the world around him no doubt Benedict XVI is also hoping that young people will listen to the Church’s message to youth, and will help build the future of the Church and of the world.

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