A Pope Who Thought Young

Natascha Kampusch smiles during the presentation of her book "3,096 Tage" (3,096 Days) at a book store in Vienna, Austria, on Sept. 9, 2010. Kampusch, who was kidnapped at age 10 says she was repeatedly beaten, starved and forced to do housework half-naked during her 8 1/2 years at the mercy of a man who admired Hitler and considered himself an Egyptian god. (AP Photo/Helmut Fohringer, Pool) AP Photo/Helmut Fohringer

Pope John Paul II had a special connection with young people throughout his papacy, a strong bond with children of all nations, including America's children. Jerry Bowen observes that Pope John Paul II had a unique ability to relate to the world's youth, no matter where they lived or what language they spoke.

He bridged the generation gap in dozens of languages from New York, to Poland, to Argentina, to Morocco. He was a grandfather figure and spiritual leader all in one, winning over the youngest of his flock like a rock star -– a religious rock star.

It was his idea to hold youth festivals and youth Masses all around the world, religious crusades and revivals, where he put a human face on church hierarchy and dogma.

In Denver, Colo., during a very steamy August in 1993, hundreds of thousands of Catholic youth from the world over converged to see the pope in person, no one more eager than Eva Silva, a 16-year-old true believer from the Bronx, N.Y.

Says Silva, "When I was sitting there, I remember when he was in the popemobile and I just, you feel the lump in your throat and you just start crying. I started crying because I was so moved by his presence."

Years later, Silva was still the true believer, still savoring the vivid memories of her Denver encounter with the pope.

"You feel that holy aura, that you just -- you feel so moved that such a great man is in your presence, that you are actually breathing the same air he's breathing," she recalls.

Father Larry Paolicelli, who led the Bronx youngsters on their pilgrimage to Denver for World Youth Day, says, "They had no idea that he would have this kind of effect on them. I think it was a marvelous creation of his: the whole idea of concentrating on youth. You know, for those days, it was a beautiful vision, which has borne great fruit."

Still, like pontiffs before, John Paul spoke of a faith founded on absolute beliefs: no premarital sex, no birth control, abortion or divorce. A tough message and tough sell for some in his teen-age flock. But it wasn't too tough a message for young Catholics like Silva, who says, "You know what? It is black and white. This is what I believe in. I believe in no premarital sex. I don't believe in abortion. I don't believe in divorce."

During his long reign, John Paul carried his message to millions of young people, continent to continent, country after country.

In Rome, in the church's jubilee year of 2000, a weary pontiff was stooped and ailing, but still awe-inspiring. Silva was there, this time as the adult leader of another group from New York.

Against expectations, John Paul continued his travels and youth festivals into the new millennium.

In Toronto in 2002, Silva, who was 25 years old, was there again with yet another group from New York.

"This is the only pope in history," she said at the time, "who's ever taken any interest in the youth, ever. He's 80-something years old, and he's here. He's ill, and he's here. For us! Waiting to see us! To talk to us! That's amazing."

It's as amazing as the army of Eva Silvas inspired by John Paul over the years, rock solid in their faith, even in the face of scandal -- the revelations in the American church of sexual abuse by priests.

"Ninety percent of priests are holy, decent men, and they've done nothing wrong," says Silva. "We can't criticize all just because a few have tarnished the priesthood."

From John Paul's surprise election all those years ago, when few knew his name, to one surprising festival after another, when his name became a youthful chant, he reached out to young people, and many reached back.

Concludes Silva, "I'm not afraid that the next pope won't be a good pope. I'm more afraid that the pope will find it hard to fill his shoes. …I think (Pope John Paul II) will be remembered most as a priest who listened, who understood, and who cared."
  • Ellen Crean

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