“Do not be afraid. Open, I say open wide the doors for Christ.”
On October 22, 1978, the late Pope John Paul II began his pontificate with these words. This call to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ is as urgent and necessary today as it was over thirty years ago, and the occasion of his beatification on Sunday, May 1, 2011 offers us an opportunity to remind ourselves, and others about the witness of John Paul II's life and message.
The witness of the life of this great man, and the words he spoke in his many homilies, speeches, and encyclicals are more relevant today than ever, especially to today's teenagers, who may be too young to remember or recognize John Paul II's influence on the Church and on the world.
In the age of the Internet, TV, and Youtube, teenagers and young adults expect to be entertained, and they instinctively demand video footage, and documented proof to back up any claim that is made in the classroom. The examples and witnesses of real people who can be seen and heard can be very helpful in making a case for Catholicism as the Truth that sets us free (cf. John 8:32).
Pope John Paul II is an example of a person in the 20th century who survived many difficulties – including tragedy in his family as well as the Nazi occupation of Poland, which forced him to study for the priesthood in an underground seminary. When he was ordained a priest and, eventually, a Bishop, he spoke out against Communism, injustice, and the general moral decline of the modern world. He was a man who possessed diverse talents and gifts, such as intelligence, charisma, and athleticism.
A basic principle in youth ministry is meeting young people where they are, engaging the culture, and making the truth relevant and approachable. This is an idea that relates directly to the Incarnation, when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).
As Pope, and now, as someone on the path to sainthood, Pope John Paul II's life provides for us a wonderful example of someone who truly mirrored Christ, and at the same time, brought Christ to us. We should take advantage of the publications, films, and even Youtube videos that chronicle the life of this great man as a way to encourage young people that holiness is possible.
Pope John Paul II clarified that “True holiness does not mean a flight from the world; rather, it lies in the effort to incarnate the Gospel in everyday life, in the family, at school and at work, and in social and political involvement.”
This is a message that we must keep in mind, and continually remind the youth that we work with. Often, it seems that holiness is only attainable to those who withdraw from the world in monasteries or convents, and spend their days in prayer. Holiness, when contrasted with the behavior that the media proclaims as normal and healthy, seems alien or impossible.
The late Pope reminded us of the Universal Call to Holiness that was affirmed by Lumen Gentium, a document of the Second Vatican Council. Personal holiness is possible, and necessary for any person, at any state of life. We do not need to run away from the world in order to be holy, but to live in the world and bring Jesus to the people we encounter.
Clearly, John Paul II's claim that everyone can, and must, be holy and take part in evangelization is counter-cultural. Throughout his papacy, he made many efforts to reach out to young people, and one way was through beginning the practice of World Youth Day in 1984, encouraging youth of the world to gather with the pontiff and grow in faith. The tradition of World Youth Day continued with Pope Benedict XVI, who will gather this summer in Madrid, Spain, with youth from around the world.
Pope John Paul II's call for holiness, truth, and justice in a world of increasing immorality, relativism, and injustice is not without difficulty. However, the Pope's message was also one of hope for those who follow Jesus Christ. He never ceased to assure us of God's love for us and his desire for our happiness and fulfillment. During his visit to Croatia 1994, Pope John Paul II boldly proclaimed, “Do not abandon yourself to despair. We are Easter people and Alleluia is our song.” As we continue to strive for holiness in the midst of many difficulties, let us remember these words, and the promise that hope does not disappoint (Romans 5:5).