Before a youth rally of an estimated 25,000 people, Pope Benedict XVI spoke on hope and freedom, stressing the “journey of hope” made manifest in the lives of the saints.
However, he also addressed the “darknesses” that treat people as “mere objects” and manipulate, distort, and tarnish truth, perception of reality, and the imaginations and aspirations of youth. He further reflected on both the true nature and the distorted conceptions of freedom.
The Pope opened with a passage from the first letter of Peter: "Proclaim the Lord Christ … and always have your answer ready for people who ask the reason for the hope that is within you."
Pope Benedict directed the audience to observe the venue’s six large pictures of saints: Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, Saint John Neumann, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, and Padre Felix Varela. “Any one of us could be among them,” the Pope said. “Take courage! Fix your gaze on our saints.”
Though such saints are individually different, the Pope said, they were all “inflamed with the love of Jesus.” They made an “act of abandonment” to God and all “offered an outstretched hand of hope.” The saints “laid open the way of faith, hope and charity” through their ministry to the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. They did this through the “compelling witness that comes from walking humbly in the footsteps of Jesus,” which he said was the “way of forgiveness, reconciliation, humility, joy and peace.”
The saints show us that “the life of faith and hope is also a life of charity,” he continued.
Pope Benedict also warned of “activities and mindsets which stifle hope,” pathways of only apparent happiness and fulfillment that in fact “end only in confusion and fear.”
The Pope referred to his teenage years under Nazi rule: “My own years as a teenager were marred by a sinister regime that thought it had all the answers; its influence grew - infiltrating schools and civic bodies, as well as politics and even religion - before it was fully recognized for the monster it was. It banished God and thus became impervious to anything true and good.”
The Pope said we must thank God that many of the younger generation can enjoy the liberties produced “through the extension of democracy and respect for human rights.”
But “the power to destroy does, however, remain,” Pope Benedict warned. “To pretend otherwise would be to fool ourselves. Yet, it never triumphs; it is defeated. This is the essence of the hope that defines us as Christians; and the Church recalls this most dramatically during the Easter Triduum and celebrates it with great joy in the season of Easter! The One who shows us the way beyond death is the One who shows us how to overcome destruction and fear: thus it is Jesus who is the true teacher of life.”
The Pope repeated a prayer to God from the Easter Vigil liturgy: “dispel the darkness of our heart! dispel the darkness of our minds!”
“What might that darkness be? What happens when people, especially the most vulnerable, encounter a clenched fist of repression or manipulation rather than a hand of hope?” the Pope asked.
He cited the threats to the “dreams and longings” of young people, such as drug abuse, homelessness, poverty, racism, violence, and the degradation of people, especially of girls and women.
“While the causes of these problems are complex,” the Pope said, “all have in common a poisoned attitude of mind which results in people being treated as mere objects. A callousness of heart takes hold which first ignores, then ridicules, the God-given dignity of every human being.”
Pope Benedict also warned of a second area of darkness which affects the mind. It often goes unnoticed, the Pope said, “and for this reason is particularly sinister.”
“The manipulation of truth distorts our perception of reality, and tarnishes our imagination and aspirations,” the Pope cautioned.
He further reflected on the true nature of freedom, and also the relativistic distortions thereof:
“The fundamental importance of freedom must be rigorously safeguarded. It is no surprise then that numerous individuals and groups vociferously claim their freedom in the public forum. Yet freedom is a delicate value. It can be misunderstood or misused,” the Pope said, so that it would result not in happiness, but result in “a dark arena of manipulation in which our understanding of self and the world becomes confused, or even distorted by those who have an ulterior agenda.”
“Have you noticed how often the call for freedom is made without ever referring to the truth of the human person?” Pope Benedict asked, rhetorically.
The Pope argued against the claim that respect for individual freedom makes it wrong to seek truth, “including the truth about what is good.” He said in some circles “to speak of truth is seen as controversial or divisive, and consequently best kept in the private sphere.”
“And in truth's place - or better said its absence,” he said, “an idea has spread which, in giving value to everything indiscriminately, claims to assure freedom and to liberate conscience. This we call relativism. But what purpose has a ‘freedom’ which, in disregarding truth, pursues what is false or wrong?”
He lamented that many young people, in the name of freedom or experience, have been led to hurtful situations, to moral or intellectual confusion, and even to despair and suicide.
“Dear friends, Pope Benedict said, “truth is not an imposition. Nor is it simply a set of rules. It is a discovery of the One who never fails us; the One whom we can always trust.
“In seeking truth we come to live by belief because ultimately truth is a person: Jesus Christ. That is why authentic freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in; nothing less than letting go of self and allowing oneself to be drawn into Christ's very being for others.”
The Pope spoke about how believers could help others “walk the path of freedom which brings fulfillment and lasting happiness.” The saints, he said, gave a witness that truly freed others “from the darkness of heart and mind.” This witness grew from the kernel of their faith, the Incarnation.
The Incarnation, Pope Benedict said, “tells us that God does indeed find a place among us. Though the inn is full, he enters through the stable, and there are people who see his light. They recognize Herod's dark closed world for what it is, and instead follow the bright guiding star of the night sky. And what shines forth? …the light of Christ among us.”
The full message to the youth can be found here.