I have been unexpectedly emotional as the 30th anniversary of the 1993 World Youth Day approaches. I firmly believe that visit by St. John Paul II changed the Church. It certainly changed my life, down to this very week. And I wasn’t even there.
It changed my life because I received a photocopy of a photocopy of John Paul II’s closing homily and I read it, reread it, photocopied it for others, and kept it ready at hand. It changed the way I thought about myself, my vocation, and the Church.
I shared about it on the Extraordinary Story, my podcast on the Life of Christ, because in it, John Paul applies the parable of the Good Samaritan and the commissioning of the 72 disciples, to the laity.
His words show John Paul II to be a masterful Christian leader in three ways: high expectations, fidelity to the Gospel, and follow-through.
First, high expectations: The Pope’s profound trust in us changed us.
St. John Paul II didn’t reduce his message to fit the size of the scary “Generation X” 1990s youths in America. Instead, he raised our stature — and our sights — by his words.
He said: “At this stage of history, the liberating message of the Gospel of Life has been put into your hand and the mission of proclaiming it to the ends of the earth is now passing to your generation.”
No one had ever told us that. No one had ever expected anything from us but disappointment. Now the Pope was telling us he counted on us.
“The Church needs your energies, your enthusiasm, your youthful ideals, in order to make the Gospel of Life penetrate the fabric of society, transforming people’s hearts and the structures of society in order to create a civilization of true justice and love,” he said.
That was a big ask — building a civilization of justice and love — but he said only we could do it. And he meant it. So we believed him. We still do.
Second, Gospel fidelity: He didn’t soft-pedal Jesus’s radical message, at all.
No one had ever spoken about us like he did, and no one had ever spoken to us about the Gospel like he did, either. He said: “Now more than ever, in a world that is often without light and without the courage of noble ideals, people need the fresh, vital spirituality of the Gospel.”
Truth be told, I tended to think of the Gospel as a mix of good news and bad before that.
But, “This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel,” he said, then specified what that entaied: “Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places, like the first Apostles” and “take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern ‘metropolis.’”
It gives me chills even now to read it. Those words launched countless vocations, including the priests who made Benedictine College, where I work, what it is — and the parents who made Benedictine College students what they are.
But, third, I think the most important thing St. John Paul II did was follow through with his “big ask.”
He said the new century and new millennium, just seven years away, was “a field ready for the harvest. Christ needs laborers ready to work in his vineyard. May you, the Catholic young people of the world, not fail him.”
Like I say, the words changed the whole trajectory of my life. But that wasn’t due to me. It was due to him.
St. John Paul II didn’t leave the effect of his words to chance. He planned the ultimate follow-up, the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, as a giant retreat for the whole Church. The Vatican gave us an examination of conscience based on the Good Samaritan, asking:
“Which side are you on? Are you someone with a hard heart, who ignores the expectations of their neighbor, or are you someone with a merciful heart? There is no third way. Your choices, your behavior will judge you.”
That’s what a leader does.
He says, “You can do this!” He adds, “And you can do it right!” Then he circles back to ask, “Is it done?”
The answer is: Not yet, your holiness. But we’re working on it, trying to fulfill the task you gave us 30 years ago: “People thirst for genuine inner freedom. They yearn for the Life which Christ came to give in abundance. … Share with them the freedom you have found in Christ.”
I’m trying. I want to do more. And you?