I was born in 1985, almost eight years into the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.
Like millions of young Catholics around the world, I grew up knowing only him as the pope and universal shepherd of the Church. In grade school I learned about popes who had preceded him, but if I wanted to see a pope, and when I heard about what a pope was doing and saying now, all of my experience was of Pope John Paul II.
This reality begins to explain in part why John Paul II’s 26-year reign had such a universal and formative effect on Millennial Catholics. But of course his effects on my generation go far deeper.
His teachings touched us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church – which he commissioned and promoted – became the basis for my high school theology education The vision for Catholic education he articulated in Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990) inspired the education given me by the Catholic college I attended. And his encyclicals Veritatis Splendor (1993) and Fides et Ratio (1998) became the touchstones for an integrated understanding of faith and reason’s complimentary roles, as well as a clear explication of the moral life that Christ reveals as the way to become truly happy.
His courage energized us. Even when I was very young, I was vaguely aware that Pope John Paul II played an instrumental part in lifting the darkness imposed on so much of the world by Soviet Communism. Likewise, there was his courage in defending innocent human life at all stages – in defending the family – in articulating authentic human sexuality as a “gift of self” in marriage – in encouraging young men and women to be open to religious life: I knew it took courage to say such things in the world we inhabit today. He continued proclaiming these truths even after the failed assassination attempt on his life, as well as through the suffering he endured in his later years and the ridicule heaped on him by those who sought to defeat his aims and silence his message – and this courage amazed us.
His energy to proclaim the good news inspired us. No pope in history has travelled more than John Paul II did. As a young man I find his energy daunting. He made a special point in many of this visits to meet the young, and the World Youth Days he founded inspired millions of young Catholics across the globe.
In all of this Pope John Paul II served as a “spiritual grandfather” to our generation: an old man, rich in wisdom, but who still kept the spark of his youth aflame in his heart. He showed to those of us beginning our adult lives that one can be faithful to the great call to be a disciple of Christ throughout one’s entire life. Many of us had good priests, teachers and parents who directly taught us the faith in word and example, but behind all of them loomed the unforgettable figure of the good and loving pope – our grandfather in faith.
My most moving experience with the pope was the time I saw him in person, at the Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It would be one of the last Easter Vigils he celebrated in his life. For the beginning of that liturgy, the lights of the entire church were extinguished. John Paul came down the central aisle with his hand steadily holding the Easter Candle. His eyes were fixed on that tiny light at the point of his candle in that great, cavernous space. As he passed my row, I suddenly understood. That tiny light was Christ – the light which illumines the world. Through the intensity of his stare he drew the focus away from himself and towards that light. I’ll admit it: I had come in part to see the pope, but it was Christ who I encountered that night.
That light of faith, which the pope passed to me that night, shines on in my life, as I know it shines on in the hearts of millions of Millennial Catholics around the world. We see that light in the thousands of young men and women in the United States who have heeded the call to become priests and religious sisters, or to pursue holy marriages. We see that light in the unwavering commitment to life and works of charity among young Catholics around the world. We see that light in their love for renewing the liturgy. We see that light carried on by his close friend who succeeded him as pope. And soon, we will see that light in the great joy of the universal Church as we acknowledge that John Paul II has gone to be with the Light of Life – Christ Jesus – for all eternity.
Thank you for showing us the light, the truth and the way, grandpa. We miss you.
(This article originally appeared on Headline Bistro, 4/25/11)