John Paul II, youth minister

George Weigel

Pole that he was, Karol Wojtyla had a well-developed sense of historical irony. So from his present position in the Communion of Saints, he might be struck by the ironic fact that the Synod on “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” currently underway in Rome, coincides with the 40th anniversary of his election as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978. What’s the irony? The irony is that the most successful papal youth minister in modern history, and perhaps all history, was largely ignored in Synod-2018’s working document. And the Synod leadership under Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri seems strangely reluctant to invoke either his teaching or his example.

But let’s get beyond irony. What are some lessons the Synod might draw from John Paul II, pied piper of the young, on this ruby anniversary of his election?

1. The big questions remain the same.

Several bishops at Synod-2018 have remarked that today’s young people are living in a completely different world than when the bishops in question grew up. There’s obviously an element of truth here, but there’s also a confusion between ephemera and the permanent things.

When Cardinal Adam Sapieha assigned young Father Wojtyla to St. Florian’s parish in 1948, in order to start a ministry to the university students who lived nearby, things in Cracow were certainly different than they were when Wojtyla was a student at the Jagiellonian University in 1938-39. In 1948, Poland was in the deep freeze of Stalinism and organized Catholic youth work was banned. The freewheeling social and cultural life in which Wojtyla had reveled before the Nazis shut down the Jagiellonian was no more, and atheistic propaganda was on tap in many classrooms. But Wojtyla knew that the Big Questions that engage young adults — What’s my purpose in life? How do I form lasting friendships? What is noble and what is base? How do I navigate the rocks and shoals of life without making fatal compromises? What makes for true happiness? — are always the same. They always have been, and they always will be.

To tell today’s young adults that they’re completely different is pandering, and it’s a form of disrespect. To help maturing adults ask the big questions and wrestle with the permanent things is to pay them the compliment of taking them seriously. Wojtyla knew that, and so should the bishops of Synod-2018.

2. Walking with young adults should lead somewhere.

Some of the Wojtyla kids from that university ministry at St. Florian’s have become friends of mine, and when I ask them what he was like as a companion, spiritual director, and confessor, they always stress two points: masterful listening that led to penetrating conversations, and an insistence on personal responsibility. As one of them once put it to me, “We’d talk for hours and he’d shed light on a question, but I never heard him say ‘You should do this.’ What he’d always say was, ‘You must choose’.” For Karol Wojtyla, youth minister, gently but persistently compelling serious moral decisions was the real meaning of “accompaniment” (a Synod-2018 buzzword).

3. Heroism is never out of fashion.

When, as pope, John Paul II proposed launching what became World Youth Day, most of the Roman Curia thought he had taken leave of his senses: young adults in the late-20th century just weren’t interested in an international festival involving catechesis, the Way of the Cross, confession, and the Eucharist. John Paul, by contrast, understood that the adventure of leading a life of heroic virtue was just as compelling in late modernity as it had been in his day, and he had confidence that future leaders of the third millennium of Christian history would answer that call to adventure.

That didn’t mean they’d be perfect. But as he said to young people on so many occasions, “Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that God’s grace makes possible in your life. You’ll fail; we all do. But don’t lower the bar of expectation. Get up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation. But never, ever settle for anything less than the heroism for which you were born.”

That challenge — that confidence that young adults really yearn to live with an undivided heart — began a renaissance in young adult and campus ministry in the living parts of the world Church. Synod-2018 should ponder this experience and take it very, very seriously.

COMING UP: The Catholic crisis, in perspective

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Perspective is at least as important when reading the signs of the times as it is in landscape painting. And so, in this autumn of our Catholic discontent, I was particularly grateful to hear from an old friend, Nina-Sophie Heereman, who offered some needed perspective on the Catholic circumstance in the United States.

I first got to know Nina Heereman in Rome some 10 years ago, when she was doing Christian formation and spiritual direction with women from the University of St. Thomas, who were in the Eternal City as part of the late, great Don Briel’s Catholic Studies Program. Her story was so striking that I recounted it briefly in The End and the Beginning (the second volume of my John Paul II biography), to illustrate the late pope’s transformative impact on men and women from a variety of backgrounds. And Nina’s background was certainly intriguing.

A German baroness by birth, she had grown up in what she described as a “Catholicism hollowed out…a shell with no serious sin and therefore no state of grace [and] no encounter with Christ.” Then, after a powerful experience of the eucharistic Christ at World Youth Day-1997 in Paris, and after pondering John Paul II’s own vocational discernment after seeing him in Rome in 1998, Nina Heereman became a committed missionary disciple, taking vows as a consecrated laywoman in radical dedication to the New Evangelization.

After earning one of the world’s toughest doctoral degrees, in Sacred Scripture, she is now assistant professor of theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California, and it was from there that she recently wrote me:

“Against the black foil of so many negative headlines, haunting us for more than three months now, I am delighted to share the good news that for me — a German — moving to [the] San Francisco [archdiocese] feels like having fumbled through my mom’s fur coats only to find myself in Catholic Narnia! I lack the words to describe my joy at serving a truly Catholic bishop with such a clear vision for the renewal of the Church. Honestly, I had not a clue what I was signing up for. I always knew that the American Church was in much better shape than any Church in Europe, but I did not have the slightest idea that it was so much more alive. Now, granted, I might have unwittingly stumbled upon a particularly Catholic pocket of the country, but that is rather unlikely for I am in the heart of Silicon Valley, which is not…famous for its devotion to Catholic doctrine.

“….Never before — and I have lived in six important Catholic institutions so far — have I encountered a faculty that in its entirety embraces the teachings of the Catholic Church and is fully committed to teaching the same. On my first day the rector of the seminary, Father George Schutlze, said ‘We are celebrating ‘Humanae Vitae’ and then proposed a reflection on it for our faculty retreat…Archbishop Cordileone [then] came and addressed the faculty with the same words, adding that the connection between the dissent from ‘Humanae Vitae’ and the current crisis was evident. I was…hardly able to believe my own ears, that I actually heard a shepherd of the Church speak up for the truth of ‘Humanae Vitae.’ ‘I must be in Narnia and Aslan is back,’ was my only thought. As you know, being European I had never heard such clear, courageous, and prophetic words out of the mouth of a local bishop…

“In brief, I thank the Lord for having brought me here…It is so liberating to live my faith ‘out in the open.’ In spite of everything the newspapers say, the future of the [Latin-rite] Church belongs to the U.S.!”

Baroness Doctor Heereman is no naif. Multilingual, experienced in the ways of the world she is eager to help convert, an adult rescued from shallow Euro-secularism by personal friendship with Jesus Christ and now holding one of Catholicism’s most distinguished academic degrees, Nina is very much worth listening to. Especially when she bids those dispirited by today’s Catholic crisis not to fear the future, and to get on with living the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19.

That doesn’t mean backing off from essential and painful reforms in American Catholicism. Not at all. It does mean designing and implementing those reforms with evangelical intent.

Featured image by Grant Whitty on Unsplash