Pope John Paul II watches youths at World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002.
ARTURO MARI / AP Enlarge
I stood in the drizzling rain in a muddy field amid a soggy crowd of 800,000 people, trying hard to keep my notebook dry (and glad I had learned years ago not to use a felt-tip pen in bad weather).
It was World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, Canada, and Pope John Paul II was about to conclude the four-day event by celebrating Sunday morning Mass in Downsview Lands Park, a sprawling former military base.
"You are young, and the Pope is old and a bit tired," he said in his homily. "Although I have lived through much darkness, under harsh totalitarian regimes, I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear, is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young."
For nearly a week, I had been interviewing teenagers and twenty-somethings arriving from 147 countries, including a contingent of about 700 from the Toledo Catholic Diocese.
Virtually everyone I talked to said the main reason for their pilgrimage was to see the Pope. In a distant second place was a desire to meet other young people from around the world who shared their faith.
Young Catholics were thrilled and honored that John Paul, then 82 years old and struggling physically from Parkinson's disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, and hip and knee ailments, had made the trip to Toronto even as his health had forced the cancellation of several other trips.
When he arrived at Toronto's airport, the Pontiff decided not to use a mechanical lift for the disabled, as planned, to exit the plane, but instead walked down a steep flight of stairs.
The effort was not overlooked by young viewers. "Oh my goodness, you see the Pope and how he walked down the stairs when he got off the plane. The cross he carries is so much greater than ours," said Nikki Kulka, then a 16-year-old student at Notre Dame Academy in Toledo.
Pope John Paul refused to let his physical frailties keep him from his beloved World Youth Day, a semiannual gathering that he had initiated in 1984.
"Young people from all parts of the world are gathering for the World Youth Day," he said at the airport. "With their gifts of intelligence and heart, they represent the future of the world."
Every word seemed to require a great effort, which made each syllable seem precious.
"But they also bear the marks of a humanity that too often does not know peace, or justice," he continued. "Too many lives begin and end without joy, without hope. That is one of the principal reasons for the World Youth Day. Young people are coming together to commit themselves, in the strength of their faith in Jesus Christ, to the great cause of peace and human solidarity."
I spoke with a number of local youths from this area who had traveled to Toronto.
"His spirit is so clear you can see Christ in him," said Connie Adams, then 17, of Sandusky.
"I think it's just awesome that the Pope came here. He's so enthusiastic. Even with his health problems, the Pope is as competent as he was 50 years ago," said Zach Bellman of Maumee, 15 at the time.
In the last week, since Pope John Paul II's death on April 2 at age 84, I've been asking people for their thoughts on the man who had been their shepherd for more than 26 years. Again, the young people's respect and admiration has been striking.
"He always looked out for the youth," said Chad Hoover, 25, of Bowling Green. "He had a message for us to walk in the footsteps of our faith. And he was not in the dark at all - he was in touch with the issues of the day like stem-cell research. We looked to him for guidance."
Mr. Hoover, who is in the process of converting to Catholicism, said he enjoys listening to the Pope's 1999 CD, "Abba Pater," which features classical and rock music accompanying John Paul's prayers and homilies. "He's going to be missed," Mr. Hoover said.
Renata Burgett, 21, said she believes the Pope truly cared about her generation. "I think he made a special effort to listen to young people of the world. And he carried the cross throughout his term," she said.
While the Pontiff was often greeted by crowds of youth chanting, "John Paul 2, We Love You," their admiration for him wasn't the kind of superficial hero worship one gets from teens raving about their favorite actresses or rock stars. Theirs was a deep and profound respect for a man who touched their hearts, minds, and spirits through his words and deeds.
In an era when popular culture glorifies youth and beauty, when some athletes and actors earn more in a day than many clerics earn in a year, the humble and frail Pope was a unique role model for youth.
They saw the spirit that shined despite his physical struggles. They saw the love that poured from his heart. "You are the future of the world," Pope John Paul II told them in Toronto. Through his tireless efforts to touch the lives of young people, the Pontiff made it more likely that hope and joy, peace and human solidarity will blossom for generations to come.
David Yonke is The Blade's religion editor.
Contact David Yonke at: email@example.com or 419-724-6154.