The so-called JPII generation is struggling to keep the faith in a turbulent world, says Anna Arco We were sitting in the dark glued to CNN, de spite the streaming sunshine outside. It was the Easter holidays and I was on the other side of the Atlantic waiting intently for news from Rome. My father, the newsjunkie, called us to the television two days earlier when Pope John Paul II went into septic shock. From afar we saw the crowds gather in St Peter’s Square and keep watch over the three lit windows of the Apostolic Palace which John Paul II had flung open to the world. When Archbishop Leonardo Sandri emerged from the papal apartments, we knew it was over. “We all feel like orphans this evening” he said. I think we cried.
Even though his death had been long in coming and his suffering a witness of love, it was still a shock. I remember sending text messages full of the banalities of mourning to friends and cousins in Europe. Could they believe that the only pope we had ever known had died? Born in the late 1970s and early 1980s, my peers and I had never known another pope. He was our pope. He loved us. And we in turn, loved him.
Photos document my first and only encounter with Pope John Paul II. I don’t remember it, but they show a chubby three-year-old in a pretty frock escaping from her mother’s grasp to hug the Holy Father (see photo overleaf). They also show John Paul II bending down to lift up a forward toddler, always ready to embrace children and young people. Throughout my childhood he was everywhere: in pictures in presbyteries, in the newspapers, on the television, on books and prayer cards.
For young Catholics, he was always present – like Mother Teresa – a beacon of hope and virtue in idealistic times. He was an embodiment of the change that swept Europe in the 1980s, the euphoria experienced on either side of the Berlin Wall as it fell and the hope with which the world approached the beginning of the Third Millenium. Humorous, charismatic and fun-loving, he was a pope who understood the young and spoke to us. And we came to celebrate the Eucharist with him in our millions, in Częstochowa, Denver, Manila, Paris, Toronto and Rome.
Where young people today shout “Be-ne-detto”, the late pope was accompanied by hordes of teenagers and twentysomethings chanting: “John Paul II, we love you” wherever he went. I remember joining in, aged 13, standing in the drizzle of a cold Saturday in Central Park before the Mass for young people during his 1995 visit to the United States. Although it was only October, the Pope sang a Christmas carol in Polish to the whooping, clapping and cheering of the congregation. “Why are you clapping?” he asked. “You don’t know what the song says!” And then there was silence.
In his homily that day John Paul II appealed to the young, calling them to help the Church enter the Third Millenium. He said: “You young people will live most of your lives in the next Millennium. You must help the Holy Spirit to shape its social, moral and spiritual character. You must transmit your joy in being adopted sons and daughters of God ✒ through the creative power of the Holy Spirit. Do this with the help of Mary, Mother of Jesus. Cling to her rosary, and you will never wander far from her side. The Pope is speaking to all of you. Not only to the young people. The Pope asks you to do this. He knows that you will do this, and for this he loves you. Then you can tell the whole world that you gave the Pope his Christmas present in October, in New York, in Central Park. Do not be afraid! The power of the Holy Spirit is with you!” In the Jubilee Year, World Youth Day in Rome drew two million youngsters to the Eternal City. I didn’t go, but remember speaking to my cousin who had spent the night outside sleeping on the cobbles of St Peter’s Square. It was an exhilarating experience, she said Much has changed since John Paul II’s funeral drew four million people to the biggest mass pilgrimage to Rome in history. His reputation has been overshadowed by the Church’s failings over clerical abuse and the corruption in the Curia surrounding the case of Fr Marcial Maciel and the Legionaries of Christ.
A good number of my contem poraries who loved the late pope have since stopped attending Mass regularly or almost completely abandoned the practice of the faith. The times feel more serious, more austere. The peace that people hoped for after the end of the Cold War has failed to materialise and the world seems to be erupting again in violence. A decade into the new millenium there is the sense that Pope Benedict is continuing the work begun by John Paul II. If John Paul II worked horizontally, reaching out to the whole world, Benedict is working vertically, deepening the roots of the faith. The JPII generation is very fortunate to have had John Paul II as the pope of its childhood and youth and to have Benedict XVI as the pope of its adulthood.
Some people say that John Paul II’s greatest legacy is the Theology of the Body he developed in response to the sexual revolution; others say it is the continued success of the World Youth Days he initiated.
The last time I saw Pope John Paul II in the flesh was on a hot September day in St Peter’s Square in 2004 when he beatified Anne Catherine Emmerich and Emperor Charles of Austria. This was not the Pope singing the Christmas carol in Central Park I remembered. Hunched in his chair, almost unable to speak, he was an image of Calvary.
It was the gift of himself, the energy, enthusiasm and holiness with which he reached out to the young and the old, that was his biggest legacy. This was made most evident not in the great pageants of his life, but in the public suffering and pain of his final years. If we, the John Paul II generation, can take that witness of suffering into our adulthood and old age it will be a lesson of love and humility which will serve us well. ◆