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The young people's Pope

By Helen Ransom - posted Friday, 8 April 2005


It was significant that among Pope John Paul II's last words were words of thanks to all the young people who had congregated in Rome's St Peter's Square to pray for him.

The relationship the Pope had with young people was irrepressible and sincere, and his passing brings mixed feelings for young Catholics in Australia. On the one hand, many of us have only lived during one papacy. Karol Wojtyla became pope in 1978, a year before I was born, and saying goodbye will be difficult.

On the other, there is an understanding that this life is transitory, an acceptance of the inevitability of death, and the hope that he has returned to God.

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On Monday I attended a Mass where prayers were said for the Holy Father. Tears streamed down my face as the priest read the prayers for the dying, which included intercessions to God and the saints for a holy death. It brought home the reality of the imminence of John Paul's earthly departure and reminded me of my own mortality.

I had only seen the Pope once, at a Wednesday Audience in St Peter's square four years ago. Looking back at my photos of that momentous occasion I see a suffering old man. Walking stick in hand, his shoulders are slumped and his face grimaced in pain. In one photo, he seems to look directly at me as he is driven past. Yes, the pain is obvious, but it is accompanied by a look of serenity.

The irony is that the suffering of John Paul II was a witness to hope.

He exemplified the understanding that Catholicism is more than just a belief in the teachings of Christ, that it involves a daily commitment to accept and act according to the will of God. For John Paul II, that meant surviving an assassination attempt and forgiving his would-be killer.

Plagued by Parkinson's disease and rheumatoid arthritis, he continued his role as the supreme and visible head of the Church until his last breath, through his teachings, writings, and visits to more countries than any pope before him. By example he showed the world's one billion Catholics that the purpose of life on earth exists beyond the grave, and that the way we live this life will determine our eternal life.

And, despite sustained criticisms of the Church teachings, particularly through the mass media, the affinity between John Paul II and young people was remarkably strong. Wherever he went, young people would greet him with the cry: “John Paul II, we love you!” and “Il Papa, Father!”

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In 1985 he launched World Youth Day, one of the signature initiatives of his papacy. Despite old age and ill health, he managed to draw crowds of almost three million to the event in Rome in 2000, and some 800,000 to Toronto Canada in 2002.

In a society where contraception, cohabitation, divorce and abortion are accepted norms, he faithfully upheld and promoted Church teachings, which resonated with many young Catholics. John Paul II unrelentingly championed the dignity of the human person, from conception to natural death.

His unparalleled work, The Theology of the Body, emphasised the goodness of human sexuality within marriage, a "communion of persons" characterised by authentic self-giving love.

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First published in the Herald Sun on April 5, 2005.



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About the Author

Helen Ransom is a political adviser and is currently studying a Grad Dip in Theology at Catholic Theological College, Melbourne.

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