Monday, May 16, 2011

The Pope who taught me how to say 'yes' to Christ by Brian Caufield

Catholic News Agency:

You don’t have to be young to claim membership in the JPII Generation. I was 21 when he was elected to the papacy in 1978, yet he had a profound impact on the direction of my life, from coming back to the Catholic Church to entering the seminary and even to taking my first cross-country trip to see him in Denver in 1993.

Young people today have no idea what a breath of fresh air John Paul II brought in 1978, not only to the Church but to the world. Catholics had just suffered the deaths of two popes in as many months, and Americans had slogged through Nixon, Watergate and the ignoble end to the Vietnam War. We looked to be headed toward endless decline or death by nuclear war or a population bomb, when the white-clad figure stood on the balcony above St. Peter’s Square and announced, “Be not afraid!” He was youthful, hopeful, masculine, smiling and strong. After years of failed worldly leaders and misfought wars, here was a man who knew what he was about. He had a plan, and if you had even a hint of guts and vision, you wanted to be on his team.

He came to my town, New York City, in October 1979 and turned the place upside-down. New Yorkers don’t turn their heads for anyone, yet John Paul seemed to catch the eye of everyone. Over the years I have met many dozens of people who have said with ecstatic recall that as the pope rode along the streets in his (then open) car, he looked directly at them in the crowd. Impossible, but true. I was among them.

Then there was “the woo heard round the world.” John Paul was in Madison Square Garden, the stage for Knicks, Rangers and various bad boy rock stars, surrounded by his beloved young people. The kids were thrilled, showing up in their 70s stylish long hair and bell-bottoms, chanting and singing and bringing down the house from their seats. Suddenly there was a woo – a deep, guttural sound that got louder and more emphatic. It was the pope, responding to the energy of the youth with deep emotion and feeling. “Woo, woo, woo, woo, woo!” My older brother and I were watching on television – too old to be there with the teens – and we looked at each other and said, “We have a pope who says ‘woo’!”

Fourteen years later, my brother and I went on pilgrimage, driving across the states in three days to mile-high Denver to see the same pope, somewhat frailer but still strong, at World Youth Day 1993. I was in the seminary and working the summer for Catholic New York newspaper, and got up-close media access to the stage. “Good morning!” the pope announced to the thousands who had slept the night outdoors in the spacious park. He was a father waking his children with love and a strength that called them to rise and reach for higher things. There is this day and many days ahead that demand action. “Good morning!”

This pope woke me up again on a recent fine morning, May 1, the day of his beatification. I set my clock in Connecticut for 2:30 a.m. so I could rise and watch live the Mass from St. Peter’s Square, and hear for the first time the words as they were spoken by Pope Benedict XVI, “From now on Pope John Paul shall be called blessed!” I reflected on my long pilgrimage with John Paul, extending over three decades and the best years of my life.

He taught me to say yes to Christ when no one else around me was. He brought me to the seminary, where I learned the true philosophy and theology of the Church, and to pray, witness and sacrifice, though I was not called to be a priest. His theology of the body and “Love and Responsibility” prepared me for the next stage of my life in marriage. When the time came, and the woman of my dreams appeared, I was ready for love and commitment in a way I had never been before in my life.

I know my story is not unique. John Paul II touched the hearts of generations and changed the course of history. Yet I am witness to the fact that the JP II Generation extends beyond Gen X, Gen Y and the millennials. It includes us, those over 50. We knew him first, when the world was blooming new with his energy and faith.

Blessed John Paul, pray for us.

* Brian Caulfield is editor of the website Fathers for Good, an initiative by the Knights of Columbus that features regular articles, videos and other multimedia on the subject of Christian fatherhood. A father of two young boys, Brian writes on the spiritual truths found in daily life and the issues men face while striving to live out their vocation.

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