Africana Plus

No25-b August 1997.5.1

The pope in Paris

Face to face

On August 24, young people of every race, colour, language and nation gathered at the Longchamp racetrack in Paris to celebrate the 12th World Youth Day. This sea of young faces stirred up a great wave of hope. Invited by the Pope "to build a civilization of love", the young people were overcome by the magic of this moment of grace. A sort of kairos.

Face to face: a man, a crowd.
Face to face: a old man filled with wisdom, and a million young people filled with expectations. The man tells them of his faith in a God of Love and of his confidence in their youthful energy. The young people allow themselves to be taught, and to be confirmed in their hope of a peaceful future. Amazingly, they are the ones who listen patiently, and he is the one who speaks out forthrightly.
"My dear young people, go out on all the highways of the world, all the highways of humanity, while remaining united in the Church of Christ! Give witness to the Gospel!"
Face to face, heart to heart, the generations are reconciled.
One old man, a million young people.

Who would have thought that such an encounter would still be possible today? It completely goes against the logic of a world that promotes efficiency, profitability, production, and consumption.
It is practically unthinkable in a century in which life is increasingly measured by what can be weighed, counted or bought. Our Western way of life and the pervasiveness of advertising put the emphasis squarely on "having". Oh! If only I had that, all my friends would be so jealous. Oh! If only I had one of those, then I'd be happy too. But neither life nor death, when they speak to us, ask us What do you have? but simply Who are you? Human beings are the ones who say I have. But God always begins by saying I am. And in speaking to the young people gathered around him, the Pope wanted to put the focus on "being".

An unlikely encounter at a time when people believe only in what they can see and value appearances. Of course everyone would like to stay young, to the extent that youth represents qualities worth cultivating: enthusiasm, generosity, a sense of justice and a desire for absolutes. But instead, we have turned youth into a cult: Look young! Buy young! Drink young! Smoke young! Without really knowing what the slogans mean, people are hypnotized by them, and rather than acting our age, with all its advantages and disadvantages, we chase frantically after days that are no more.

The Pope told the young people of today that what is important is not the number of years you've lived, but what you do with them. There is only one thing wrong with anyone's age, and that is the amount of time spent living closed in on ourselves. We are afraid of dying. We aren't afraid of living. We are far too afraid of dying. We are not afraid enough of living. Instead of being afraid to die, we should be afraid of wasting our lives. A good death is not necessarily a quick one. A good death is a death that comes after a good life. And a good life isn't necessarily a long one, but it is a life that has given all that it can in the time available.

As an example, the Pope offered them a young and simple guide: Saint Theresa, who died at the age of 24 in her humble convent, and yet became patroness of foreign missions and would soon be made a Doctor of the Church. It was during this closing ceremony, in fact, that John Paul II announced that he would be elevating her to this rank on October 19, Mission Sunday. By suggesting to young people that they follow the "little way" of this great saint, he was encouraging them to become missionaries in their own milieu. Some short lives add treasures to the Kingdom of God. That, it seems, is the goal we should pursue.

An improbable face-to-face encounter that flew in the face of people's expectations. One old man, a guardian of the Christian tradition, a representative of a highly contested morality (almost two thirds of young French people pay no attention to the Pope's statements about social ethics, such as the problem of unemployment, for example, or about sexuality: contraception or abortion), and facing him, a million young people, a people on the move, a cosmopolitan gathering in quest of truth and spirituality. As insects are drawn to light, so the young people were drawn to this old man. He is not the light, but rather the glass that surrounds it. The young people were aware of that. And that is why, in spite of his fragility, they answered the call, drawn by the Spirit crying out within their hearts.

John Paul II is a remarkable personality!
Seated, he kept his listeners on their feet.
Weak, he gave them strength to hold aloft the torch of the faith.
Unarmed, he destroyed all fear.
Without speaking, he provoked their cheers.
A believer, he challenged them to question.
A pilgrim, he invited them to embark on all the highways of the world.
"My dear young people, your road does not end here! Time is not going to stand still today!"

Finally, this old man from the West spoke to young Africans gathered in Goma (Democratic Republic of Congo - former Zaire): "We know all the trials that your peoples have endured. With all your friends who are assembled here, we urge you to become peacemakers and reconcilers."

A great cheer of solidarity resounded through the assembly. The barriers of hatred fell down. At that moment, death itself seemed to take a step back. Genocide will not have the last word. An old man spoke. Young people approved. A feeling of solidarity was created, beyond time and space. And in Goma, Christ rose again.

That is the message the Pope wished to give them. That is the person the young people were asked to believe in. And that is the Good News they want to carry to the world.

Viva il papa!

Michel Fortin, M.Afr.

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