In a world where the old and young alike are exploited or ignored, World Youth Day shows us that even an old Pope and a crowd of teens can learn from each other
What is the irresistible attraction of the Pope and World Youth Day? Bl. Pope John Paul II started this regular meeting between the Holy Father and the world’s youth. His successor, Benedict XVI, continued this tradition, and now Pope Francis draws huge crowds of radiantly happy young people who hear his words and follow his lead.
Some would write it off as merely celebrity culture. The Pope – whoever he is – is one of the world’s great celebrities. The white soutane with the matching mozzetta and zucchetto has huge recognition value. Young people are drawn to celebrities; is the attraction no more than the fact that hundreds of thousands of young people want to catch a glimpse of a world celebrity?
More cynical observers will surmise that the attraction is that of a cult leader to his devotees. “These sad young people are robots brainwashed by their religious leaders to believe this man in white is God’s voice on earth. Don’t you see? They exhibit all the traits of deluded religious fanatics! They love the Pope like all cult followers love their leader.”
In fact, something more beautiful and profound is going on. At World Youth Day, we see the interaction and complementarity of youth and age. The Pope is not just the Holy Father; he is the Holy Grandfather. As such, he represents the joyful wisdom of age. He stands for the depth of experience and growth in character that can only come after many years spent living life (with both joys and sorrows) to the full. He is the old person we all must become if we are to persevere in the faith and reach the fullness of our destiny.
On the other hand, the young people stand for all the joyful hope of youth. They radiate beauty, faith, love, trust and hope for the future. The young people represent zeal, idealism, energy, ambition and the desire to give all for the great dream of love and the abundant life. They are the children we all must become if we are to enter the kingdom of God.
Deep within the human heart there is a longing for age and youth to meet and balance one another. The young long for the vision, knowledge, depth, power and wisdom of age. They long for wise and loving guidance from their elders. They long to know the Father’s and the Grandfather’s affirmation and encouragement.
At the same time, the elderly long to see again the beauty, joy, and laughter of youth. They long to witness and participate in the ambitions and hopes of the young. They long to see the young learning and growing and moving forward with lives that are full and free.
In a world where youth is too often valued for its own sake or only for it’s energy and sex appeal and where the elderly are abandoned, World Youth Day declares that youth and age are both beautiful and good. In an age where the elderly are neglected, mocked, ignored, and even put to sleep, World Youth Day declares that our parents and grandparents still have much to offer the world.
In the modern age where the old, rich, and powerful exploit the young, where families are broken by divorce, where children are abused, abandoned, and aborted, World Youth Day declares that the young people of the world are a treasure; that in each young face is a beautiful reflection of the face of God. Here, youth and age are met together, and both come to the realization that they need one another.
In all the worlds’ great stories, the young hero hears the call to adventure and then sets out on some great quest. At the beginning of the story he or she invariably meets the mentor – the wise old man or woman who guides them on the journey. So Frodo Baggins meets Gandalf, Harry Potter meets Dumbledore, Prince Arthur meets Merlin – and more.
These great stories echo deeply in the hearts and minds of every person, for they are the story of each human life and of humanity’s lost longing for home. In every generation, the young man or woman sets out on the great adventure to find love and eternal life, and he or she cannot do so in their own power alone.
So it is with the young people at World Youth Day. They are setting out on the great adventure to find love and eternal life in Christ. They travel onward with the wisdom of a 2,000-year-old Church, and Pope Francis is their mentor – the Holy Grandfather – who points them in the right direction and waits to welcome them home.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.