John Paul II's Master Class to his 'dear young friends'

FR. THOMAS ROSICA, C.S.B.

John Paul the actor gave the world a command performance on a world stage. To his 'dear young friends', it was truly a Master Class in the drama of Gospel living and dying. He has touched us deeply and changed the world and the Church.

Dear Friends,

It is an honour for me to be here this evening and tell you a story about one of my great heroes, mentors and friends. I know he is also a hero for many of you gathered together in this beautiful chapel that Pope John Paul II knew about. I spoke to him on several occasions about the Newman Centre Catholic Mission at the University of Toronto. Had his health permitted in July 2002, he would have visited here during World Youth Day 2002 to admire the chapel and pray before these magnificent stained glass windows. Now is not the time to begin the analysis and critique of the Pontificate — that will come and must come once we have laid him to rest in the very place where his predecessor John XXIII rested until the Good Pope's beatification in the glow of the Jubilee Year.

Tonight I begin by sharing with you a story from last summer. On a warm weekend in August 2004 as I worked in our new Toronto studios of Salt and Light Catholic Television Network in Canada, (a project inspired by John Paul II), two screens in our master control room were carrying very contrasting, human dramas played out on two world stages. One television network was airing scenes of the Olympic Games from Athens — featuring and exalting the human body in its youthfulness, agility, and beauty. Another monitor carried scenes of quite a different theater unfolding at a famous Catholic shrine tucked away in the Pyrenees in southern France — featuring not sportsmanship and physique as in Athens, but diminishment, suffering, disfigurement and pain that are so much a part of the pilgrimage centre at Lourdes. And the key actor in this moment of pathos was an 84-year-old Pontiff, slumped over on his kneeler as he prayed before the image of the Blessed Mother who appeared in Lourdes more than 150 years earlier.

Two contrasting theatrical dramas on that August weekend: Athens and its glorious medalists come and go with the passage of time. Lourdes and its exceptional pilgrim will remain engraved on the memories and hearts of pilgrims and viewers throughout the world who, seeing those images, realized that John Paul II was beginning the final dramatic act of a brilliant 27-year Pontificate. He was an actor who knew the power of gesture and symbol, and allowed himself to be a kind of spectacle to the world.

Now that the struggle is over, the curtain fallen, the race won, the heavenly victory his... Why, of all things, did the young people of the world respond so positively to this elderly Pontiff who, in the final years, represented the opposite of the cult of the body and the myth of eternal youth; the falsehood of rampant freedom without commitment; of love and sexuality without responsibility. He did not present them the hollow façade and quick sound bytes of self-serving politicians; wealthy sports heroes and empty Hollywood personalities of our day. And they loved him for that.


He fulfilled remarkably his role of "Successor of Peter" during the past twenty-seven years. But even more than that, he was the "Successor of Paul", talking the Church off the banks of the Tiber River in Rome and bringing it to the farthest corners of the earth.


The press nicknamed him "God's athlete", and later "God's astronaut" because he traveled a distance equivalent to more than three times that between the earth and the moon on over 100 international trips or pastoral visits as he called them. He fulfilled remarkably his role of "Successor of Peter" during the past twenty-seven years. But even more than that, he was the "Successor of Paul", talking the Church off the banks of the Tiber River in Rome and bringing it to the farthest corners of the earth.

Over the past twenty-seven years, the eyes of the world were fixed on this Polish actor, philosopher, politician, theologian, pastor, prophet, mystic, and poet. This world leader of a billion Roman Catholics was the first pontiff of the media, satellite and Internet age. He had a commanding presence on center stage.

How could we forget the extraordinary privilege that we Canadians had in hosting him on his last vacation in 2002 when Lake Simcoe north of Toronto was called "Holy Sea" and the headlines read "Pope loves Strawberry Island Retreat", "John Paul II's love boat meets handicapped children at Huronia Regional Centre" or "Pope loves Sisters' Morrow Park in Toronto." Through all of these moments, John Paul II lowered many of the Vatican's curtains of privacy and revealed to us secrets never before realized — that Pontiffs are human and need to play and even have lunch with young people now and then on islands in Canadian lakes?

Imagine the impact that such images had on young people! I know what they did to me! In fact, in the six times I have visited with the Pope after World Youth Day 2002, with a glimmer in his eye and a little smile, he would ask me about Strawberry Island!

  

What kept him going and inspired him for the long haul? Besides his mystical faith in Christ, his love of the Church, and his unwavering hope, it was young people. During a packed press conference at the National Trade Centre in Exhibition Place during World Youth Day 2002, one of the journalists from an American network asked me publicly: "So what medication is the Pope taking to stay alive?" Vatican officials told me to avoid such questions but I took the microphone and a sudden rippled hush came over the hall. I responded: "There are two prescribed drugs: one is young people and the other is Strawberry Island." The room roared with laughter, and the Pope's Press Secretary leaned over to me and simply said: "Bravo. That's exactly it!"

Inaugurating his Papal ministry on October 22, 1978, he told young people, "You are the hope of the Church and of the world. You are my hope." John Paul II always loved them, and believed in ministry and presence to youth. He knew deep within that without a love for and presence to young people, the Church would have no future.

He wrote: "Whenever I meet young people in my travels throughout the world, I wait first of all to hear what they want to tell me about themselves, about their society, about their Church. And I always point out: What am I going to say to you is not as important as what you are going to say to me. You will not necessarily say it to me in words; you will say it to me by your presence, by your song, perhaps by your dancing, by your skits, and finally by your enthusiasm." A lesson that some of us in Church leadership and ministry should take to heart quickly if we would like to make the Gospel relevant to future generations.

  

"No one invented the World Youth Days. It was the young people themselves who created them", John Paul II wrote in his 1994 book, Crossing The Threshold of Hope. In actual fact, he first sought them out; they then discovered him.

John Paul II enjoyed an incredible popularity with young Catholics. At the World Youth Day in Rome in 2000, he called the young people of the world his "joy and his crown". In July 2002 in Toronto, he showed us the same. Young people today are experiencing an extreme crisis of fatherhood. I am convinced that they flocked to him because in many cases he was the father they never had and the grandfather who had been so painfully absent in their lives.

During the 17th World Youth Day's concluding mass at Downsview Park in Toronto on Sunday, July 28, 2002, the Pope spoke deeply personal and touching words to the assembled crowd of over 850,000 people, "You are young and the Pope is old and a bit tired. But he still fully identifies with your hopes and aspirations. Although I have lived through much darkness, under harsh totalitarian regimes, I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young. Do not let that hope die! Stake your lives on it! We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father's love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his son."

We can only imagine the Pope's frustration and sadness on Palm Sunday, 2005 when he was unable to descend to St. Peter's Square to preside at the magnificent Palm Sunday liturgy (the 20th anniversary of World Youth Days) — with most of the 50,000+ people present being young people. Instead, he sent the crowd a message: "I become more and more aware how providential and prophetic it is that this day, Palm Sunday and the Passion of the Lord, has become your day. This feast contains a special grace, that of joy united to the Cross which epitomizes the Christian mystery."

No world leaders have ever had such an impact on young people as this leader has had. What will be the enduring messages and legacy of John Paul II on the young people who consider themselves to be part of "John Paul II Generation?" The Pope, himself, often said, "In the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences." Maybe the reason this man became Pope is that he bore messages the world and especially young people needed to hear over the past 27 years.

First was the message and centrality of the radiant splendor of Jesus Christ as the unique Lord and Saviour of all. In order to be authentic believers, we must have a deep, personal relationship with Jesus. Christianity, Catholicism, the Sacraments are not courses, things, ideas, passing fancies, symbols — they are a person and his name is Jesus. Theology alone, trendy pastoral programs and new age, politically correct jargon will not save us. Jesus will.

Second was Human Dignity. In speaking of John Paul II several years ago, President George W. Bush, one of the Pope's admirers, said: "A young seminarian, Karol Wojtyla, saw the swastika flag flying over the ramparts of Wawel Castle. ...He shared the suffering of his people and was put into forced labor. From this priest's experience and faith came a vision: that every person must be treated with dignity, because every person is known and loved by God." John Paul II has impressed upon the new generation the dignity and sacredness of human life, from the earliest moments to the final moments. Life is an extraordinary adventure, a God-given gift to be cherished, treasured, and protected. Is it any surprise that so many hundreds of thousands of young people consider themselves to be explicitly pro-life, while their parents are so whimsical and non-committal to the issues of life and death? In John Paul II's "Culture of Life" we must make room for the stranger and the homeless. We must comfort and care for the sick and dying. We must look after the aged and the abandoned. We must welcome the immigrant. We must defend innocent children waiting to be born.


"Do not let that hope die! Stake your lives on it! We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father's love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his son."


Third, John Paul II helped us to realize that the Church is dying in politically correct places where the Gospel is preached as merely a lifestyle option in a global supermarket of spiritualities without the obligation of belonging to the Church. The Church is thriving where the full Gospel is preached in clarity, charity, piety, devotion — - in its full integrity. John Paul II told young people that there is every reason for the truth of the Cross to be called the Good News. Young people took these words to heart and have carried the Cross around the world for the past twenty years. Not just the two beams of wood but the message of the Cross and its saving power. In Canada we are unlikely to forget the powerful images of the World Youth Day Cross on its historic, 16-month, 43,000 km pilgrimage from sea to sea to sea. The Pope entrusted this Cross to young people. They have carried it triumphantly across the face of the earth almost like an Olympic torch.

Fourth, John Paul II taught us that the adventure of orthodoxy — the challenge of fidelity and integrity, authenticity and solidarity — is what attracts young people today. Young people don't want to live on the surface. In a world that constantly panders to the young, a challenging Church, which combines the truth with charity and pastoral care, is a very attractive proposition. How many times did John Paul II speak to young people reminding them that the family is the privileged place for the humanization of the person and of society, and that the future of the world and of the Church passes through it?

Fifth, John Paul II issued a clarion call to commitment. To his young friends he said: "Many and enticing are the voices that call out to you from all sides: many of these voices speak to you of a joy that can be had with money, success, and power. Mostly they propose a joy that comes with the superficial and fleeting pleasure of the senses." The alternative call was Jesus' siren song. "He calls you to be the salt and light of the world, to live in justice, to become instruments of love and peace." The choice was stark, self-denying, life-defining, irrevocable. It was between, "good and evil, between light and darkness, between life and death." There were no shortcuts or compromises for John Paul II, only clarity. And that is what the young are seeking today, not quick answers but Gospel clarity.

How many people are not afraid anymore because they saw a Pope who was not afraid. How many young seminarians and religious have spoken their "yes" because of him! How many young couples have made permanent commitments in marriage because of his profound theology of the body! How many ordinary people have done extraordinary things because of his influence, his teaching and his gestures!

Sixth point. He reminded us that the heroes the world offers to young people today are terribly flawed. They leave us so empty. The world today, and especially young people, have the increasing need of the fascinating lives of the saints. During his Pontificate, Pope John Paul II has certainly helped us to rediscover these heroes and heroines in our tradition — in fact, he has beatified 1338 women and men, and canonized 482 Saints.

  

The world today needs voices of justice, compassion and hope resounding from the palaces of governments like Rideau Hall, [the Vaniers] and from clinics like the one in Mesero [Saint Gianna Beretta Molla]. We long to catch glimpses of men and women of conviction and truth — people who live in the small towns and parishes like the Sacristan in St. Radegund [Franz Jägerstätter]. Even from the hell holes like the concentration camps in Brandenburg/Havel and Auschiwtz [St. Edith Stein], we are able to find brilliant examples of extraordinary light in the midst of so much darkness.


"Do not let that hope die! Stake your lives on it! We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father's love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his son."


Our world today rejoices in the holy men and women who labor in the Kaligats and Nirmal Hridays [Blessed Mother Teresa]. The world, and particularly young people need the sterling examples of women and men who enter cloisters, not to be shut off from the world, but rather to embrace the world with love, prayer and a true missionary spirit [Thérèse of Lisieux].

We need to hear Edith Stein's words each day on this campus: "Do not accept anything as truth if it lacks love; and do not accept as love anything which lacks truth."

Our world today badly needs Church leaders [Oscar Romero] who will stand up, speak out and be counted — and we need to hear the crystal clear message of young, committed Catholic Christians, who, like the mountain climber from Pollone [Pier Giorgio Frassati], risk everything to give flesh and blood to the Beatitudes.

Our world rejoices in the poor, humble porter of Montreal [Brother André Bessette], and all those like him who graciously offer hospitality and kindness to the multitudes, without ever counting the cost.

Tonight, we are surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses who are the friends of Pope John Paul II — He gave these people to us to hold us in his loving embrace. I spent hours in here praying to these people when I was here. I entrusted the World Youth Day to their care and protection. They didn't let me down. When you look at those windows, think of Pope John Paul II. One day his window might be here in this chapel.

Finally, one of the most profound lessons he taught us in the twilight of his Pontificate was that everyone must suffer, even the Vicar of Christ. Rather than hide his infirmities, as most public figures do, he let the whole world see what he went through. The passing of this Pope did not take place in private, but before television cameras and the whole world. In the final act of his life, the athlete was immobilized, the distinctive, booming voice silenced, and the hand that produced voluminous encyclicals no longer able to write. Yet nothing made John Paul waver, even the debilitating sickness hidden under the glazed Parkinsonian mask, and ultimately his inability to speak and move. In a youth-obsessed culture in which people are constantly urged to fight or deny the ravages of time, age, disease, he reminded us that aging and suffering are a natural part of being human. Where the old and infirm are so easily put in nursing homes and often forgotten, the Pope was a timely and powerful reminder that our parents and grandparents, the sick, the handicapped and the dying have great value. Many young people have confided in me over the past few years that they were "deprived" of their grandparents in their families and witnessed in the public diminishment and suffering of John Paul II the real meaning of aging and suffering. I have heard over and over again from young people these past years: "I feel as if he were my grandfather."

  

Against the backdrop of a Culture of Death, where life is so cheap and sanctioned euthanasia is on our doorsteps, John Paul II's dying gave new meaning and urgency to the Gospel of Life in all of its agonizing beauty.

I received this letter two hours ago one of several hundred that have been sent to me since the news of the Holy Father's suffering and dying last week. It is from a young man named Tom from London, Ontario. He was part of the welcoming delegation at Pearson International Airport on July 23, 2002.

"I just want to take a minute and say thank you for every thing you have done for me by taking me to the airport on that unforgettable Tuesday in July, 2002. ...For me these last few days have been an internal battle as to how I feel about this whole thing. I feel sad that such a man with such great sprits has died, sad that the church has lost one of it shepherds, and sad that the only Holy Father I have known in my life time has now passed away. Yet at the same time I can't help but feel excited and happy for both the church and for him. John Paul II was a man of great youthful spirits, he preached of hope, love, and world peace. But most of all he preached to and for the youth of our world. He was not blind to the fact that the youth were people, and he was not blind to the fact that the youth of today would one day lead our Church. He gave us a voice and he gave us a say.

...Being in that airport hanger watching the Pope take those steps off the plain is an image I will forever hold and cherish in my heart. That day the Pope did not take those steps so that we could see how old he is, he didn't take those steps so that we could see how frail he is and feel sorry for him, he took those steeps so that he could show the youth that he was there for them, he took them because he was a youth at heart and was always and will always be a youth at heart. I was then blessed with the opportunity to great the Holy Father, to look into his eyes and see his love and compassion. That day I saw the Pope in a new light. He was no longer this old frail man who led the church, I now saw him as this young vibrant sole who loved to lead his people, his fellow youth, his brothers and sisters. So I thank you Fr. Tom for granting me the greatest gift of my life. ... My prayer is that this person, this new leader, is one that loves the youth just as his predecessor Pope John Paul II did."

Nearly twenty-seven years ago, John Paul II began his historic Pontificate with the words that would become the refrain of his ministry: "Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!" Those words did not fall on deaf ears for many young Catholics throughout the world. The very battle hymn that they made their own was: "John Paul II, we love you!" He responded back to them: "John Paul II, he loves you."

  

On Saturday morning last week, as he lay dying in his bedroom in the Apostolic Palace, over 100,000 people were gathered below in St. Peter's Square. Dr. Navarro-Valls told me that more than half of the people were young people. They sang. They prayed. They wept. They had kept two nights of vigil in that blessed place that was home to so many... who of us can ever forget the opening ceremonies of World Youth Day 2000 when the Pope welcomed 750,000 young people to Rome — to his home in that very place. Upstairs on the third floor, Archbishop Stanislas Dziwisz held the Pope's hand and they were able to hear the singing in the square. He told the Holy Father — "Listen, they have come in great numbers. They are here for you. Forcing himself to speak, the Pope uttered slowly: "Vi ho cercato. Ora sono venuti da me. Vi ringazio." "I have looked for you and now you have come to me. I thank you." These were the Pope's last recorded words on earth the day that he died, April 2, 2005. What fitting words to describe the centerpiece of his Papacy: young people.

John Paul the actor gave the world a command performance on a world stage. To his 'dear young friends', it was truly a Master Class in the drama of Gospel living and dying. He has touched us deeply and changed the world and the Church.

Tonight I say to you:

Your Holiness, Santo Padre, Dear Friend and Dreamer,
"Thank you" and "Pray for us."
In the words of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet [Act III scene 2]:
"...when he shall die, Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
And in the words of Horatio, Hamlet's friend:
"Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!"

  

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Rev. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B. "John Paul II's Master Class to his 'dear young friends'." (April 4, 2005).

This talk was given on Monday evening, April 4, 2005 in the Chapel of the Newman Centre at the University of Toronto during a prayer service for Pope John Paul II. The service was attended by several hundred university students and members of the University of Toronto Catholic Community.

This article reprinted with permission from the author, Father Thomas Rosica.

THE AUTHOR

Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., a native of Rochester, New York, was ordained a priest in the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilian Fathers) in 1986. He holds advanced degrees in Theology and Sacred Scripture from Regis College in the Toronto School of Theology [1985], the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome [1991] and the École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem [1993]. From 1994-2000 Fr. Rosica served as Executive Director and Pastor of the Newman Centre Catholic Mission at the University of Toronto. He began lecturing in Sacred Scripture at the Faculty of Theology of the University of St. Michael's College in 1990 and has continued until the present.  From 1999-2003, he served as the National Director and Chief Executive Officer of World Youth Day 2002 and the Papal Visit to Canada.  As of July 1, 2003, he has been the Chief Executive Officer of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation in Canada. Father Roscia is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2005 Father Thomas Rosica, C.S.B.