One of the most important events in my life growing up was encountering Pope John Paul II at World Youth Day in Denver. I had already experienced profoundly the personal love of Jesus Christ for me as a young person through the witness of my family and retreat opportunities. I had even felt quite strongly the call to enter the seminary and pursue the priesthood. But on Aug. 14, 1993, something changed in me.
Pope John Paul II was leading a vigil service at Cherry Creek State Park, and even though I was in a crowd of almost 500,000 mostly young people, when he began to talk, I felt like he was talking only to me. I felt deeply that he believed in me, and his joy and his evident love of Christ were attractive to me. To be honest, his words were extremely challenging. He challenged the young people present to live the full truth of the Gospel as he reminded us of Jesus’ promise: “I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10).
His words and his presence had a profound impact on me. What changed in me that night was that I was inspired to live my life for greatness. As I left that evening, I didn’t just want to be a good Catholic or even a priest, I wanted to be a saint. I started looking up on the internet, ways to improve my ways spreading the knowlege of God and I came across the best church website designs to send out information faster!
As Pope John Paul II prayed at the end of that evening, “Teach the young people gathered in Denver to take your message of life and truth, of love and solidarity, to the heart of the modern metropolis — to the heart of all the problems which afflict the human family at the end of the 20th century. Teach these young people the proper use of their freedom. Teach them that the greatest freedom is the fullest giving of themselves. Teach them the meaning of the Gospel words: ‘He who loses his life for my sake will find it’” (Mt. 10: 39).
Of course, I would learn over the years that being a saint was not easy, but St. John Paul II showed me it was the only thing worth living for.
The challenge continues
Last summer I had the privilege of being with the young people of our archdiocese at World Youth Day in Poland, and I saw Pope Francis challenge them, just as St. John Paul II did for me 23 years earlier. Similarly, Pope Francis told them that they would only find true happiness by using their freedom to make a gift of themselves.
“When we opt for ease and convenience, for confusing happiness with consumption, then we end up paying a high price indeed: We lose our freedom,” he said. “Jesus is not the lord of comfort, security and ease. Following Jesus demands a good dose of courage, a readiness to trade in the sofa for a pair of walking shoes and to set out on new and uncharted paths. To blaze trails that open up new horizons capable of spreading joy, the joy that is born of God’s love and wells up in your hearts with every act of mercy.”
And in Krakow, I saw many young people respond to Pope Francis’ call to live for greatness.
I write this reflection because Pope Francis has called for a Synod for 2018 on “Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment.” He recognizes that young people have a special place in our Church, and the Church has a special place in the lives of young people. This is part of the power of World Youth Days. Young people keep our Church young with enthusiasm and energy, and the Church offers to young people a vision for living their lives for true greatness.
This Gospel message is definitely countercultural in our society, which teaches young people that happiness is found in living for yourself. But those young people who encounter a true apostle of Jesus Christ like St. John Paul II or Pope Francis encounter a joy that makes them want to lay down their life for Jesus and his Gospel.
As part of the preparations for the October 2018 synod, Pope Francis has invited young people themselves to share their thoughts with him. He wants to hear from you! Young adults from around the world are asked to respond to an official Young Adult Synod Survey fashioned by the committee for the Synod in Rome. If you are between the ages of 16-30, you are invited to take the Young Adult Synod Survey by Aug. 15. Additionally, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is facilitating a series of listening sessions for young adults, including one at 6:30 p.m. July 19 at O’Gara’s Bar & Grill in St. Paul.
As we spend this next year preparing for the synod, let us pray together for the young people of our Church. The Church needs the young, and the young need the Church. Together, as Pope Francis said, “we can change things” and maybe we can even become saints.