In 1984, Pope John Paul II was shocked and delighted to find that more than 250,000 young people had flocked to the streets of Rome. In 1983–84, the Church was celebrating the Holy Year of Redemption, marking 1,950 years since the death and resurrection of Christ, and for Palm Sunday he had invited young people to gather in celebration. About 60,000 had been expected; nobody anticipated the vast crowd that would turn out.
This experience is widely recognised as having set the stage for World Youth Day. The pope reissued the invitation the following year, and this time more than 300,000 came to Rome. On 20 December 1985, impressed by the openness and willingness of young people to embrace their faith, he announced the institution of World Youth Day—an opportunity for pilgrimage to various locations around the world, and to discover and witness to the truth, goodness and beauty of Jesus Christ.
It’s fair to say that Pope John Paul II recognised a spiritual hunger in these young people. They had flocked to Rome in such large numbers because they were searching for something more.
Because of this, the pope’s messages to young people for a long time were remarkably similar. He drummed a consistent beat, and it was a message that is as relevant today as it was then: that we are made for more than what the world offers. We are called to more.
‘The world in which we are living is shaken by crises of various kinds, among which one of the most dangerous is the loss of the meaning of life,’ he told youth in 1988, announcing the third ever World Youth Day. ‘Many of our contemporaries have lost the true meaning of life … They are looking for happiness, but the result is deep sadness, an empty heart and, not infrequently, despair.’
In the midst of this crisis of meaning, he pointed to Jesus. In following Jesus, we find ‘the only project for a truly successful and happy life. This is also the one source that gives the deepest meaning to life.’
The problem, as he saw it, was not only our material abundance, which can easily distract us from searching for the true meaning of life. It was also an overarching philosophy he referred to as ‘materialism’. Materialism is the idea that the world is made up only of physical stuff, and that spirituality and religion are dreams—or, worse, delusions that hinder true human flourishing.
But there is something about being human that doesn’t square with this philosophy. There are values we hold, realities of life, that are so much more than physical. One of these—perhaps the most important—is love. And our experience of love points the way to the deepest truth there is: that we were created by a divine Love, to give our lives in love.
‘Since man can neither live nor understand himself without love, I want to appeal to you to grow in humanity, to give absolute priority to the values of the spirit,’ the pope said in 1987, ‘by increasingly recognising and accepting the presence of God in your life: the presence of a God who is Love; of a Father who loves each one of us for the whole of eternity’.
It’s not hard to see why this message was so important to the pope. His homeland, Poland, was subject to a Communist regime for years, and communism—a fundamentally materialistic ideology—dismissed religion, in the words of Karl Marx, as ‘the opium of the masses’. Before he was pope and known simply as Karol Wojtyla, he served these ‘masses’ of people underground, teaching them not only about theology and philosophy but about art and beauty too. A playwright and poet, as well as a philosopher, he believed there were ‘values of the spirit’ that cannot be explained by materialism alone.
And he became convinced that if we push God out of the picture, we frustrate all that is human about us: our desire for love, happiness, beauty, freedom, eternity, all of it.
His message to young people was also consistent in recognising this call to love as a demand, a challenge. In the same way that resurrection came only through the cross, true happiness comes only through the gift of self—to God and to one another.
‘The building of a civilisation of love requires strong and persevering characters, ready for self-sacrifice,’ he said in 1988.
It is also an adventure:
[Y]ours is an age of many important discoveries … Now, among these many discoveries there must not be lacking one that is of fundamental importance for every human being: the personal discovery of Jesus Christ. Discovering Christ, always again and always more fully, is the most wonderful adventure of our life. (Fourth WYD in Santiago de Compostela, 1989).
This call to discover Jesus as the deepest meaning of our lives is a timeless message. It is also at the heart of Pope John Paul II’s vision for World Youth Day. Pope Benedict XVI took up this message, as has Pope Francis. And every pilgrim attending World Youth Day this year is invited to go on the adventure and to discover Jesus anew for themselves.
Melbourne Catholic19 June 2023