Saint Peter’s Square witnessed another memorable gathering to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II. I made my way to the bustling historic square with a friend and upon arriving we zig-zagged through the crowd of people to an ideal spot, front and center with a good view of Pope Benedict XVI.
The evening could not have been more serene. The sky was crystal clear as the sun gradually slipped behind the massive dome of the basilica, illuminating the horizon with beautiful shades of color. Some may have anticipated there to be a sense of sorrow. After all, we were gathered to remember that sad time one year ago when our beloved pope left this world and we all felt a little more alone. While there was a certain degree of sadness present there was also an unmistakable and even stronger joy that circulated with the cool breeze that passed over the crowd. This joy was rooted ultimately in gratitude to God for the great gift of Pope John Paul II and also in the certainty that he was present with us spiritually.
As we looked around, we couldn’t help but comment on the impressive number of Polish flags and the fact that the overwhelming percentage of those present was young. Of course, the high number of Poles and youth was not particularly surprising, considering Pope John Paul II’s deep love for young people and the indelible mark he left on Polish history in particular. Any event centering on Pope John Paul II is bound to draw youth together like a magnet. One group of youth from Florence held up a banner with a touching message that read, “Dear Pope John Paul II, you have called us and we have come.” It brought both my friend and me back to the final days of the pope’s life when, according to those nearest him, he expressed gratitude for the massive presence of youth who sought to be close to him during his last hours of suffering. In fact, this simple message from the youth of Florence seems to be the most appropriate slogan for an entire generation of youth. The example of Pope John Paul II is serving as a catalyst for a new revolution among the world’s youth who understand what his life and their lives are all about. He taught us what it means to be authentically free and what it is to love.
For more than 40 years, generations of young people have been told from presumed elites, experts and entertainers that love is all about a good feeling and nothing more. Any connection between love, commitment and responsibility was severed. Love was redefined, it could be argued perverted, by an inverted and ultimately confining individualism driven by a parochial “if it feels good, do it” slogan. Love and happiness were thus degraded to the satisfaction of nothing more than the basest passions of the individual. “Free love” really means nothing more than the satisfaction of the unbridled passions, divorced from any notion of gift of self to another. As such it is thus incapable of bringing lasting happiness because it is stifling and hopelessly turned in on itself. For the individual, this will ultimately result in an intense isolation and loneliness.
Does a life motivated by nothing more than the drive to satisfy one’s own passions leave one ultimately happy? Modern culture says yes, but in truth, the key to man’s happiness lies outside the mere gratification of a passing urge or sensation.
Is an understanding of love that has been stripped of any spiritual and transcendent meaning a truly human vision of love? Pope John Paul II gave the world and youth in particular another answer to the beautiful mystery of love.
Love, understood as gift, is the most authentically human act possible, since it mirrors the inner life of the Holy Trinity. The eternal reciprocity of divine love shared between the Father and the Son is so profound that the Love itself constitutes a Third Person in the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the notion of an unreserved gift of self rooted in unselfish love between a man and woman within the context of marriage is so powerful that another life is introduced into the relationship through the conception of a child. So great is the dignity of this love that God allows man to be participants, co-creators as it were, in the divine plan of creation.
Mother Theresa would often say “love until it hurts.” This is diametrically opposed to the “if it feels good do it” credo of the 1960s. Love often involves sacrifice and pain, as the life of Christ makes clear. Love is about taking up one's cross and giving until it hurts. Sometimes this emptying of self, this pouring out of love as a gift is exhausting and difficult, even painful. But love never ends in sorrow. There’s always Easter Sunday. In so many ways this is a counter-cultural message and may strike many as something of a scandal. But what has been called the “scandal of the cross” is just that, counter-cultural, even revolutionary. This commemoration of Pope John Paul II’s death was in many ways an impromptu World Youth Day gathering, with thousands of young people, revolutionaries in a way, gathering for prayer and then going back out into the world as “witnesses to hope,” heralds to a new revolution of love.
© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange
Maldonado-Berry is currently studying Social Communication at the University of Santa Croce in Rome. He also works for Vatican Information Service, (VIS) and Rome Reports, a news agency in Rome that covers Church events.