In just a few weeks, something unusual will happen. Nearly two million young people from around the world will flock to Poland to see an elderly South American gentleman.
They’re not coming to see an aging rock star like Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger in concert, and they’re not coming to see a sports legend like Pelé perform in an exhibition game. No, they’re coming for something much more important—and much holier. They are coming to celebrate World Youth Day with Pope Francis.
Begun in 1985 by Pope John Paul II, World Youth Days have taken place every three years, each time in a different location. Despite the length of time between the events and despite the challenges and costs of travel and lodging, World Youth Day continues to attract millions of young people.
To mark this gathering, we want to dedicate this issue to Pope Francis’ message to young people. We also want to take a look at some of the challenges facing them and suggest some ways that older Catholics can relate to young people in the Church. Finally, we want to join all our brothers and sisters in praying for a successful World Youth Day. May many, many young people find their hearts stirred by the Spirit as they come together in prayer with the Holy Father!
A Call to Mercy. You don’t need a degree in theology to understand the top priority for Pope Francis. Over and over, he has stressed one message, not just to the Church, but to the whole world, and that message is mercy. In virtually every homily, every address, and every letter he has written, he urges us to open our hearts to the mercy of God and to treat one another—especially the poor and struggling—with the same degree of mercy.
In his first Easter address to the city of Rome and to the whole world, given only days after his election, Francis said, “Let us be renewed by God’s mercy, let us be loved by Jesus, let us enable the power of his love to transform our lives too; and let us become agents of this mercy” (Urbi et Orbi Message, March 31, 2013). And most recently, in a homily at St. Martha’s, he said, God “wants to forgive you, but he will not if you have closed hearts, where mercy cannot enter.”
The pope’s call to mercy is not just a matter of words. Francis has been a model of mercy himself. From eating dinner with the homeless to washing prisoners’ feet to choosing to live in a humble apartment, he has made his life a living homily about the need to treat everyone with dignity and the blessings that come from a simple life based on love and solidarity. So it only makes sense that Pope Francis would choose “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” as the theme for World Youth Day!
The Experience of Mercy. In his message to young people in preparation for this gathering, Pope Francis explained why this World Youth Day, which falls during the Jubilee Year of Mercy, has special significance. “When the Church proclaims a jubilee in the name of Christ,” he wrote, “we are all invited to experience a wonderful time of grace. . . . God’s mercy is very real and we are all called to experience it firsthand. . . . Through the cross we can touch God’s mercy and be touched by that mercy!”
Not settling just for words, however, the Holy Father went on to describe his own experience. He recalled a life-changing moment in his teenage years when, about to go out with his friends, he felt moved to stop in a church for a moment. In the church, he met a priest who had a profound impact on him. “That meeting changed my life,” he said, for in the midst of it, “I felt the desire to open my heart in Confession. . . . I felt certain that, in the person of that priest, God was already waiting for me even before I took the step of entering that church.” That one “accidental” encounter was the beginning of Pope Francis’ mission and vocation.
The grace that moved Francis to go into that church so long ago is available to all of us today. God is constantly giving us opportunities to meet him. He is constantly looking for new and original ways to touch our lives and bring us closer to him. He is always looking for us, even when we aren’t looking for him. This means that when we do turn to him, he is ready to welcome us. He is ready to put his arms around us and enfold us in his love. Even when we come to him in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as Pope Francis did, he is ready, not to condemn us, but to lift our guilt and restore our consciences. “It is so wonderful,” the Holy Father wrote, “to feel the merciful embrace of the Father in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”
Be Instruments of Mercy. Pope Francis is emphatic: This “merciful embrace of the Father” has the power to change lives. It has the power to draw us into “the divine ‘logic’ of gift and gracious love.” It makes us “capable of loving like him, without measure.”
Think of the way a baby reacts when his mother gazes into his eyes and smiles. His eyes brighten, his hands reach for her face, and he wriggles with happiness. He may even burst into laughter. Experiencing his mother’s love, the child is filled with love himself and can’t help but express that love to her.
Or think about an elderly woman in a hospital who receives a surprise visit from a close friend. As they sit telling stories and laughing together, the woman’s blood pressure reduces. Her breathing becomes less labored, and her heart rate stabilizes. The love expressed in that encounter has reduced the woman’s fears and anxieties. It has assured her that she is valued and appreciated. Whereas before she was short-tempered and angry with her nurses, now she is more gentle and cooperative. The love that her visitor showed has made her more loving and kind in return. Love begets love!
In a similar way, when we experience God’s love, we are moved to love him in return, just as a child shows love to his mother. At the same time, the experience of God’s love softens our hearts to the people around us and makes us into instruments of his mercy.
Let Us Love One Another. There is another aspect to this divine logic of love begetting love, and it’s important that we understand it. In his letter to young people, Pope Francis quotes a passage from the First Letter of John: “Let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God. . . . If God so loved us, we also must love one another” (4:7, 11).
Just as our experience of God’s love can make us more loving, so also our efforts at becoming more loving and kind can open us up to God’s love. As we put forth the effort to love one another, we find it easier to see Jesus in our brothers and sisters. We find ourselves feeling closer to the Lord and his love.
To help make this point, Pope Francis turned to the example of a young man, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati (1901–1925). Known throughout Turin, Italy, for his acts of generosity to the poor and needy, Frassati once said, “Jesus pays me a visit every morning in Holy Communion, and I return the visit in the meager way I know how, visiting the poor.” Pier Giorgio had learned how to find Jesus in the poor, and that helped him deepen his relationship with the Lord in Communion.
Pier Giorgio is not alone. Many of the greatest saints, including Francis of Assisi, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Dorothy Day, found God’s love as they opened their hearts to the people around them, especially the poor and forgotten. We should let this encourage us, because sometimes we find that God’s love works from inside our hearts and moves us outward, but at other times, his love comes to us from “outside,” as we discover Christ by caring for other people.
An Appeal to Idealism. Pope Francis understands that young people are tired of the divisions in the world—both divisions within families and divisions between peoples and nations. They are tired of the partisan and ideological fights that occur in politics and in the Church. But rather than addressing these issues directly with young people, he has chosen to appeal to their idealism and their desire for change. By telling them—and all of us—to choose mercy over judgment, he is pointing to Jesus, whose mercy endures forever. By telling them—and all of us—not to be afraid to seek the Lord, he is urging us to find the love of Christ, which can bring forth love in our hearts. These are the messages he will bring to young people in Kraków this month. May their encounter with each other be blessed and filled with divine grace!