John Paul II touched the hearts of young and old Catholics alike. But he always had a special bond with the Catholic youth of the world.
The pope understood that today’s youth will be tomorrow’s fathers, mothers, priests, religious. They will be presidents, legislators, judges, doctors, lawyers, professors. It is particularly among the young — and those with youthful spirit — that the pope made an indelible imprint.
They are the “John Paul II generation.” They have embraced his vision of the Church and of the world. Many of them attended one or more of the World Youth Day convocations, such as the one that took place in Denver in 1993. They were profoundly touched by an old man who, rather than being angry or cynical, was instead calling them not to be afraid but to be saints in the midst of the world. They heard a man who challenged them to be faithful, to embrace the doctrine of the Church in its fullness, even at the risk of being scorned by their peers. They heard a man who understood their weaknesses, but who nevertheless called them to conversion, repentance and showed them the richness of the mercy of God for us, sinners. He was a pope who told them about the salvific meaning of suffering, and the wisdom of embracing the cross; a pope who, most of all, showed them the profound respect that life — particularly at its weakest points — deserves.
The generation shaped by John Paul II in many ways shares his vision of the Church as the body of Christ, with one head and many members, each with its own charism. They heed his call to Holiness in everyday life, at work, at home, in public life. They understand that marriage is a commitment for life, a sign of the perpetual love of Christ to His Church, a sacrament of the love of God to humankind. They have experienced the liberating understanding of human sexuality as explained through his “theology of the body.” They embrace the fullness of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, without having to resort to inventions allegedly made in the “spirit of the Second Vatican Council.”
The legacy of this pope will not be fully realized until this generation fully comes into its own and begins to spread his message of God’s love to the subsequent generation. The fact is that fruits of Christian life are arising in individuals, groups and organizations that have embraced his call to the new evangelization, “new in ardor, methods and expressions.”
He himself was the first apostle of the new evangelization. This generation is the “first fruits” of that effort, one that is re-shaping the Church to be ready to resist the formidable attacks of secularism.
Every time the people of God face a serious crisis, the Holy Spirit sends prophetic voices to call them to greater faithfulness to the Gospel. That was the case with saints such as St. Francis and St. Ignatius. Even in Old Testament times, prophets had a role in calling the chosen people to change their ways and to serve the Lord even when numbers were dwindling. Israel always understood the idea of a faithful remnant that would carry on their faith in times of crisis.
Many expect that pope John Paul will soon join Blessed Mother Teresa on the way to sainthood. They both died with an air of sanctity surrounding them. Their witness to the Gospel has set the course for the life of the Church in the 21st century, a course marked by the ancient charge of God to Israel to love God with all your heart, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. That is the love of the crucified Christ that the world is longing to hear, that these giants of the faith have spread, announcing the Gospel with their lives throughout the world.
The Holy Father predicted a new springtime for Christianity in the 21st century. His legacy has inspired millions. It will multiply also in the hearts of new generations of Christians who will carry on the message of the Gospel until the end of the earth, until the end of times. John Paul II will certainly be remembered as John Paul the Great.