He was happy to see them.
They met him in Kraków. All from different backgrounds, they didn’t even know each other’s names. Young and full of vigor, their whole lives were ahead of them: education, jobs, marriage, children. It seemed there was nothing but hope and promise awaiting them. And so, he would celebrate Mass, offer prayers, hear confessions and genuinely walk alongside these young men and women as they embarked on their lives’ journeys.
And yet all was not as it seemed.
Worry crept into their young minds about the world in which they were fast approaching adulthood: Will I be strong enough for the challenges that lie ahead? Can I truly afford my education? Will I find a meaningful vocation? Is there someone out there I will fall in love with and who will fall in love with me? Is my life truly worthwhile?
But he knew they were worried. Of course he did. That was why he wanted them to come.
Unquestionably, this scenario applies to Pope Francis as he welcomes millions to the 2016 World Youth Day in Kraków.
But I was writing about St. John Paul II.
As a young priest, Father Karol Wojtyla served as assistant pastor and university chaplain at St. Florian Church in Kraków. The oppressive nature of Poland’s Communist regime in the early 1950s made Catholicism difficult to practice and priestly shepherding of youth downright dangerous.
And yet, nothing deterred this Polish priest.
The young men and women whom he pastored affectionately dubbed him Wujek (or “Uncle,” so as not to betray his priestly role when on trips and excursions), and Father Wojtyla recognized a seminal truth: a priest must walk with his flock. A faith that is isolated, as preferred by the Communist regime, was quickly extinguished or, at the very least, atrophied into useless irrelevance and then oblivion.
This was not going to happen if Fr. Wojtyla could help it.
He knew the infinite value of youth in the eyes of God and the Church. Not only would he invite young men and women to participate in the choir and daily Mass at St. Florian’s, not only would he travel with them on kayak trips and hiking adventures, not only would he officiate weddings, perform baptisms and bless households, but he taught them how to make Christ present hourly in their everyday life.
St. Thomas Aquinas purportedly said, “To convert somebody, go and take them by the hand and guide them.” This is exactly what the young Fr. Wojtyla did. He was an extraordinary listener who demonstrated a sincere interest in each young man or woman with whom he spent time. He offered insight deeply rooted in Scripture and Catholic tradition, and never imposed his will. In the midst of the dignity of freewill, he fostered a clear sense of responsibility to Christ and neighbor. He would engage in deep intellectual and theological discussions, which emerged from conversations surrounding the simplest moral conflicts of daily life. And there was never an attempt by Fr. Wojtyla to undermine his role as priest and shepherd by becoming so familiar that friendship would compromise Truth. As one of the youth, Stanislaw Rybicki, recalled in his conversation with papal biographer, George Weigel, “Today, many priests try to be like the kids. We were trying to be like him.”
More to read: Why you should care about World Youth Day
The priest and the youth prayed and worshiped. They debated and discussed. And they genuinely loved one another. They formed an honest and faithful community and rebuffed the demands of a ruthless regime insisting there be no gods before the State. And the young men and women felt free. Free to be who they were called to be. Free to be holy, loving and faithful in a world bent on decadence, selfishness and cynicism.
This was St. John Paul II’s youth group. And the style and substance of these gatherings would surely give rise to his idea for the millions-strong World Youth Day celebrations held every two or three years (including this year) since 1985.
This year, Pope Francis welcomed millions of youth back to Kraków, Poland, the home of St. John Paul II’s first steps with a youth deeply hungry for Christ. And he, too, calls them to holiness, faithfulness and love.
And as they came, Pope Francis was happy to see them.
St. John Paul II, pray for our youth, now recovering from World Youth Day, Kraków, and for the next gathering, in 2019, in Panama.