Two decades ago, Pope John Paul II initiated a plan to reach out to young people by holding World Youth Day pilgrimages. His efforts have brought millions of young men and women together with the goal of celebrating Jesus and building one another up in their faith.
Pope Benedict XVI has carried on this tradition. At the 2005 World Youth Day, while maintaining his own, more reserved, rapport with young people, Benedict spoke of the challenges facing young believers, the need for a personal experience of Jesus, and a call to evangelize. His message for the 2007 World Youth Day stayed on the same topic. In that letter, the Holy Father focused on the passage from John's Gospel where Jesus tells his disciples to love each other as he has loved them (John 13:34). Responding to these words, he challenged young people to meditate on God's love and to let that love shape their lives. Let's take a closer look at how God has shown his love for us.
A “Discovery of Love.” Benedict opened his letter with a stark, honest admission: “How difficult it is to love,” he wrote. “There are those who even come to doubt that love is possible.” Why would this be the case? Could it be because our search for love is based upon the world's standards—based upon the thought that we should love people only to the degree that they love us? Could it be because we don't understand or haven't experienced Jesus' unconditional love for us?
So many young people have Jesus boxed up. That's why it's good to ask yourself occasionally: Have I reduced him to a statue in church; a moral way; or a distant, indifferent deity? It's easy to fall into this trap, but the problem with this approach is that our ability to love one another—whether we realize it or not—is linked with our relationship with Jesus. As you come to see how much Jesus loves you, it becomes a lot easier to love the people around you.
James Taylor wrote a song that says, “Shower the people you love with love. Show them the way that you feel.” If you are young, you need to know that this is exactly what Jesus wants to do for you. He wants to shower you with love. He wants to tell you how good he feels about you.
If you don't feel that you know Jesus all that well, read the rest of this article with an open heart. Believe that the Holy Spirit lives in you. Use your mind to try to understand what we are saying, but also use your heart and say, “Come, Jesus, and show yourself to me. I want to feel your love.”
The Gospel of Love. We all know what it feels like to be loved. We are convinced that just as people can feel the love of their parents or their boyfriend or girlfriend, every one of us can feel Jesus' love! Of course these are different kinds of love, but they have similarities, and you can use these other loves as a point of departure to help you experience God's love.
If you want to build a loving relationship with Jesus, you have to know the gospel, the good news—beginning with creation and moving right up to the present time. Here's what the gospel looks like:
From the very start, God wanted every human being to love him and live with him forever. He wanted to give us his grace to help us stay close to him, obey him, and be one with him. However, our first parents disobeyed God, and that disobedience separated them from God. What's worse, their disobedience—their sin—has caused all of us to be separated from God as well.
We all know about sin. We all know what it is to lie, to be self-centered, to gossip, or to hurt someone. Usually, we do these things because we believe they help us feel good. They may help get us through a difficult moment, or they may help us overcome a hurdle. But the good feelings don't last, and we end up feeling guilty and weighed down again.
This is how our first parents felt after they sinned against God. They were full of guilt and shame. But God didn't abandon them—and he didn't abandon us. God promised someone who would “strike at [the] head” of our great tempter, even as this tempter tries to destroy him” (Genesis 3:15). These words represent a promise of victory over the sin and separation that existed. These words also show us how God wants to be so much closer to us than we can ever imagine.
Jesus: The Revelation of God's Love. So, young friends, how did God heal the separation between us and him? He sent his only Son, Jesus, not to judge or condemn us but to save us (John 3:16-17). God could have chosen any number of paths, but he chose this one because he wanted to show us how far his love reaches. He chose the path that cost him the most because it reveals his love the most. He chose it because he knew how hard it would be to ignore such a wrenching sacrifice.
Scripture tells us that “though he was in the form of God,” Jesus “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave . . . he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Jesus, who is God, chose to submit himself to a human body, with all of its limitations, because he loves us so much. He had to deal with the helplessness of infancy, with little challenges like learning how to walk and talk. He subjected himself to hunger and thirst. He could now experience physical pain and grieve the loss of loved ones.
Imagine what it must have been like for the all-powerful, uncreated, eternal Son of God to enter into his own creation. He who rejoiced with the angels became a humble rabbi with nowhere to lay his head. He whose glory shone in the vast expanse of the universe embraced in his human nature a scope limited to the vistas of the Juedan desert or the Sea of Galilee. He who could touch the hearts of millions had to satisfy himself with the small crowds who followed him, knowing that even they would one day reject him.
Can you see what Jesus gave up to become a man? Can you see the limitations that he freely took upon himself? Can you see how deep the sacrifice was? He did it for you because he loves you.
The Cross Is Our Freedom. Young people like yourselves love to look up to heroes. In the world, it's common for sports stars, rock singers, or movie stars to become heroes for youth. But Jesus is a hero as well. In fact, he's the greatest hero of all time because he's the only one who is God.
Jesus wants to be your hero. He wants you to see what he has done for you. He has “proved” God's love for us, because he died for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8).
Other people have suffered as much physical pain as Jesus did. Some may have suffered even more. But as horrendous as the physical pain was, the spiritual pain that Jesus felt was far worse—worse than what any other person ever felt. But it's here, in the spiritual realm, that Jesus shows his love in a powerful, convincing way.
How did Jesus suffer spiritually? How could God's Son feel so much pain? Because he bore our sins—all of them—as he hung on the cross. And even as he was bearing our sins, he resisted every temptation that Satan hurled at him: temptations to come down from the cross, temptations to complain to his Father, temptations to get mad at the people who were making fun of him, and so many more. Jesus didn't give in to a single one of them. Instead, he loved, to his very last breath.
What was the result of Jesus' total act of love? He won the battle! He defeated sin and brought us back to God. Through the cross, Jesus healed the separation between God and his people that had existed since the first sin.
Give Your Life to Jesus. Dear young people, if you could try to imagine what Jesus went through for your sake—so that you could go to heaven—you would fall on your knees and give your life to him. Do your best to fix your heart on Jesus right now. Picture him in your mind. Thank him for all that he did for you, and tell him that you love him. Ask him to forgive you.
Jesus wants to show himself to you right now. See if you can feel his love and his peace welling up in your heart. This is the discovery of love that Pope Benedict XVI wants all young people to find—in Jesus Christ.