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  JPII, Why Did We Love You? | Mary Beth Bonacci

It wasn't about the rules. It was about the love behind the rules.

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On the day that Pope John Paul II died, I was in giving talks in Arizona.  In fact, I was giving a talk about him when he died.  I watched all of the coverage and went to Mass and prayed for his soul — just another Catholic grieving the loss of this incredible gift to the Church.

And then I went home.

I had completely forgotten that, having written a book on the Holy Father and youth, people might be interested in what I had to say.  Until I listened to my voice mail.  There were quite a few people trying to reach me.

The next few days were ridiculously busy.  I wrote several articles, and did numerous TV, radio and newspaper interviews.  (I was even on Fox News Channel — live — at the ungodly hour of 3:30 a.m.  Apparently they save the B-list experts for the graveyard shift.)  All of the interviews were quite pleasant, really. 

We were discussing the non-controversial but apparently baffling question of why the youth of the world loved John Paul II. On the surface, it really made very little sense.  He was old.  (I heard one commentator opine that perhaps he was popular because, at only 58 when elevated to the papacy, he was relatively young.  Come on — 58 is not "young" to a teenager.  Eric Clapton is 59 and plays a mean electric guitar -- and any teenager who has heard of him still sees him as an old fogey.)  He had no "wardrobe" apart from a long white cassock.  And he told them all of the things they supposedly don’t want to hear — don’t have sex, don’t use birth control, don’t get caught up in materialism.

And yet they really did love him.  The flocked — literally by the millions — to see him.  They chanted "John Paul II, we love you!"  (Hmm, what rhymes with "sixteen"?)

I suppose there were several factors that contributed to the youth’s devotion to JPII.  He was young at heart.  He joked with the crowd at youth events.  He was funny — something they didn’t expect from this old guy in a cassock.

More important, however, is the simple fact that he loved them.  He sought them out.  He made a point of addressing them directly.  And he did it respectfully.  He didn’t talk down to them.  He didn’t water down his message.  He encouraged them.  He told them they were important.  He told them they were capable of great things. 

Most important, he spoke to them about Christ — always.  In a letter to World Youth Day organizers, he said "The principal objective of the Days is to make the person of Jesus Christ the center of the faith and life of every young person so that He may be their constant point of reference and also the inspiration of every initiative and commitment for the education of the new generations."

He wasn’t about himself.  He was about Jesus.

Which leads to the most important point:  John Paul II loved youth, and they recognized it.  But he didn’t just love them with a human love.  He, in a very real way, brought the love of Christ to them.  He embodied the love of Christ.  He made that love real — he showed them what it looks like.  Christ’s love is personal, tender, playful, challenging.  That what Pope John Paul II brought to the youth of the world.

It is a mistake to believe that young people want sex, drugs and rock and roll.  What they want, more than anything, is love.  They may use sex, drugs and rock and roll to try to find love, or to numb the pain of the lack of love.  But in their heart of hearts, they hunger for real, honest love.  They hunger for Christ.  And once they encounter Him, everything changes.

Why did the youth of the world love a Pope who gave them so many rules?  Because he didn’t just give them rules -- he gave them the love of Christ.  In the context of that love, those "rules" take on a whole new meaning.  They aren’t about jumping through hoops.  They are about living and passing on the love they have received.

Will Pope Benedict XVI have the same impact on the youth of the world?  I have to admit I wasn’t so sure, initially.  But when I saw him walk out onto that balcony for the first time, and I saw the beautiful smile on his face, I thought "Of course he will."  It won’t be exactly the same, of course.  Benedict XVI is a unique man, with a unique set of gifts.  But he is also a very holy man, who radiates the love of Christ.  I am quite certain he will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, reaching out to the young people of the world.

And they will recognize the love of Christ in him.  I’m sure of it.

(This column originally appeared on the Real Love website on April 26, 2005.)

Ignatius Press books by Mary Beth Bonacci:

Mary Beth Bonacci is internationally known for her talks and writings about love, chastity, and sexuality. Since 1986 she has spoken to tens of thousands of young people, including 75,000 people in 1993 at World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado. She appears frequently on radio and television programs, including several appearances on MTV.

Mary Beth has written two books, We're on a Mission from God and Real Love, and also writes a regular, syndicated column for various publications. She has developed numerous videos, including her brand-newest video series, also entitled Real Love. Her video Sex and Love: What's a Teenager to Do? was awarded the 1996 Crown Award for Best Youth Curriculum.

Mary Beth holds a bachelor's degree in Organizational Communication from the University of San Francisco, and a master's degree in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute at Lateran University. She was also awarded an honorary doctorate in Communications from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and is listed in Outstanding Young Women of America for 1997.

Visit Mary Beth and Real Love Incorporated online here.

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