In 1985, Pope John Paul II announced a new initiative that would go down as a milestone in church history: an international pilgrimage with young people from all over the world.
This pilgrimage was called World Youth Day, and it has become a regular fixture on the Vatican's calendar.
Following John Paul's lead, Pope Benedict XVI has continued the tradition of World Youth Day. Not long after becoming pope in 2005, he visited Cologne, Germany, for the twentieth World Youth Day, and this month he will be traveling to Sydney, Australia, to join an estimated 500,000 young people for the twenty-third such event. To honor World Youth Day, we at The Word Among Us want to explore the three letters that Pope Benedict has written to young people since 2005. Taken together, these letters help to set the stage for this year's gathering, sounding the themes that the Holy Father will emphasize during his pilgrimage.
Because these letters are filled with so many insights, we will focus on only a couple of points in each one, connecting what the Holy Father has written with Scripture and with the way God wants young people—indeed, all of us—to live. So let's get started.
What Is Freedom? In his 2006 World Youth Day letter, Pope Benedict XVI focused on the importance of reading Scripture each day. He took his inspiration from a well-known passage from the Psalms: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105). Among the many ways that the Holy Father explored the power of God's word to light our path was the way Scripture lights up for us the way to freedom.
“It is not easy,” he wrote, “to recognize and find authentic happiness in this world in which we live, where people are often held captive by the current ways of thinking. They may think they are 'free,' but they are being led astray and become lost amid the errors or illusions of aberrant ideologies . . . and the darkness in which humankind is groping needs to be illuminated.”
As Benedict said, the world is filled with various philosophies and ideologies, all of which hold out the promise of happiness. But they fail to deliver on that promise. These ways of thinking give the illusion of freedom, but what they really do is lead people into different forms of captivity and slavery. The recreational use of drugs, the abuse of alcohol, and a casual approach toward sex are all examples of empty promises that threaten to take young people captive. So too are the philosophies that tell us to seek happiness and fulfillment in the amount of money we have or in the number and kinds of things we own. And then there are the more radical philosophies that tend to attract idealistic young people: philosophies like Nazism or jihadism, which promise an earthly paradise if only we could do away with the people who disagree with us.
All of these philosophies tend to allure young people who are just beginning to question the status quo or who are looking for something exciting or promising to believe in. But in their quest for freedom and happiness, they become ensnared and end up further and further away from the freedom and happiness they long for.
True and False Freedom. God wants to set us all free—and that includes young people, who are the future of his church. But the freedom that God is offering us is different from the kind of freedom offered by the world. This freedom is a liberation from the power of sin. It's a liberation from the sin in our hearts—a force that can control us and move us to think and act in ways opposed to God's laws—and it is a liberation from the sin in the world—those philosophies that go against God's perfect plan for our lives. This freedom is also a liberation from the power of the devil—that fallen angel who is always trying to convince us to separate ourselves from the Lord.
Christians—young and old—have one basic principle to follow when it comes to freedom: Jesus already has set us free. All that is needed is for us to come to him so that we can experience this freedom and know its joys and promise. It is a simple equation: If we do not know Jesus, we will not know his freedom. Instead, we will remain bound in sin. Conversely, if we do know Jesus, we will experience his power to defeat sin, and we will begin to live our lives in the freedom that Jesus won for us when he died and rose again.
In the final analysis, true freedom is not really the “freedom” to do whatever we want, whenever we want. That false view of freedom lies behind the sin of our first parents. In fact, it lies behind every sin ever committed (Genesis 3:1-7). No, true freedom involves liberation from the bondage of sin so that we are free to become the men and women God created us to be. It is the freedom to pursue our full heritage as sons and daughters of God and temples of the Holy Spirit.
The Fields Are Ripe. So who is going to tell young people about Jesus and the freedom he offers? Perhaps a story from the Book of Acts can help answer this question.
One day, the chief treasurer from the realm of Ethiopia was reading from the Hebrew Bible while traveling to Jerusalem. Along the way, he met Philip, a disciple of Jesus, who asked him if he understood what he was reading. He told Philip that he needed someone to explain it to him. With that, Philip began to explain to him who Jesus was and what he had done on the cross. Philip's words were so convincing, and the treasurer's heart was so open, that the man gave his life to Jesus and was baptized on the spot.
How did Philip know to talk to this man? Acts tells us that an angel of the Lord directed him to “get up and head south on the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza, the desert route” (Acts 8:26). And Philip obeyed, not knowing what he would find there. It was only in hindsight that he saw that God was sending him to evangelize this Ethiopian. Evidently, the time was right for this fellow to hear the gospel, so God literally put Philip in his path.
The same kinds of situations exist all over the world today. Young people tend to be idealistic. They want to do good. They want to know real love. They want truth. Who will be the Philips of our day? It's up to us. We can be the light of the world. We can evangelize young people. This is what World Youth Day is all about.
Reject the notion that you are not called to evangelize. Reject the notion that you can't hear from the Holy Spirit. Reject the notion that Philip heard an angel as clearly as you hear someone talking to you. While that may be true, it is just as likely that Philip simply had a strong sense that he felt was from God, and he acted on it. Remember, too, that Philip learned how to evangelize through trial and error. It didn't come to him naturally. He worked at it because he wanted to be an ambassador for the Lord.
Likewise, if we reject all of the false notions that bind us up, if we have a longing to see young people come to Jesus, then now is the time. It starts with our relationship with Jesus and our knowledge of the Scripture. It starts when we let the “lamp” of God's word light our path each day.
Be the Saints of the New Millennium! In his 2006 letter, Pope Benedict XVI presents the ultimate challenge: “There is an urgent need for the emergence of a new generation of apostles anchored firmly in the word of Christ, capable of responding to the challenges of our times and prepared to spread the Gospel far and wide.”
If you are a young person reading this article, we want to tell you that Jesus loves you very much. He knows you, and he is with you. He has a wonderful plan for your life. Using your imagination, think about Jesus. See him smiling at you and welcoming you to be with him. If you have a Bible nearby, read the first chapter of John's Gospel. There you will see a simple message: “Come, and you will see” (John 1:39). Hear him inviting you to come and meet God, and to begin a friendship with him.
If you are not so young, let Pope Benedict's words move you to evangelize. Jesus once said that he would leave a full ninety-nine sheep just to go after one that is lost. This reveals how much he rejoices when just one person comes to him. Imagine yourself as that shepherd. What do you think the Lord will do if you help just one young person come closer to him? He will rejoice over you and shower both of you with unfathomable blessings!
Jesus is asking every person—young and old—to be his disciple and follow his word. So let's give our lives to Jesus. Let's read the Bible every day. Let's build our foundation on Jesus and his word. He is the only way to real freedom.