I vividly remember the first time I encountered John Paul II.
I was at my first World Youth Day in 2002 in Toronto, Canada. I was 17 years old, about to be a senior in high school, and I was ready to explore the world. I wanted to visit Europe, travel the big cities of the world, have an adventure of a lifetime. I couldn’t wait to get out of town and go do something different.
After my youth minister invited all the older youth of my parish to go to New York and Toronto, I knew I had my chance. My parents couldn’t refuse a relatively safe and close trip from the west coast of the United States to the east coast and Canada (no offense Canada). This was my long awaited opportunity. I would explore a few big cities with my friends and a bunch of strangers.
The whole trip was awesome. Many of my expectations were blown up with the bigness of World Youth Day. Thousands upon thousands of young Catholic like myself were full life and so excited to be Catholic.
An Adventure of a Life-Time
My heart started to change by the time Sunday Mass came along.
A friend of mine in the group had finagled a press pass, which meant he could ‘pass’ through some areas without much question. We decided we needed an adventure before the morning really got going. The Pope hadn’t arrived yet, but the million or so people there eagerly anticipated his arrival by helicopter. We knew we needed to get in back stage.
We finally got to the main stage and found an entrance. I didn’t happen to have a press pass (and was only 17 mind you) but somehow, my friend with the pass got us through the gate. As we staked out what our next move would be (we had a video camera), we began to notice some commotion up in the air.
The Pope’s helicopters had begun arriving, flanked by military escort and a throng of uniformed officers and snipers on building tops. A group of us had gathered in the back stage area, noticing that there was a large, unguarded open field between us and the Pope’s helicopter.
We didn’t go unnoticed, however. About 4 police officers began to circle and guide myself and the 30 or so gathered back toward a more ‘secured’ area. And what I thought would be a unique adventure to see the Pope (from a small distance) was quickly becoming a sad ushering back to the masses of people.
What happened next was probably the scariest and most exhilarating moment of my young life.
If you have ever seen someone run away from cops, it usually never ends well. Well, instead of running away from the officers, we ran toward them and through their wall of defense. One person in the group made a B-line toward the helicopter, and in a flash we were all sprinting for our lives.
All of my instincts, all of the cautious parts of my soul, vanished. I ran as hard as I could, but in my heart I felt like I was skipping. If there was ever a moment of freedom, it was then. The freedom came from a genuine desire to be as close to a man I admired for His love of others and of the Lord.
As soon as we reached the fence the ‘Pope Mobile’ came right in front of us. John Paul II waved right at us and smiled with his characteristic joy. I believed that day that I saw a man who would someday become a saint.
World Youth Day is about Joy
For many young pilgrims, World Youth Day is a chance of seeing and meeting the Holy Father. Of course there is a celebrity factor to seeing the Pope. He is, for most Catholics, the most visible person in the faith. You feel connected with Him automatically because of the faith.
He’s also a holy man. John Paul II and Benedict XVI are both men of great virtue, great inner strength, and great love. But many people live a similarly virtuous life, yet they do not have thousands of people seeking them out.
I think it’s the life of freedom and joy young people see in the Holy Father. Young people desire that same life, and though we might express that in negative ways, God’s love still permeates our lives.
World Youth Day is a joyful event. And while the vast majority of young people will never meet the Pope in person, they will have shared and experienced the same joy that rests in Him, the peace and the love of Jesus Christ, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
My small encounter with John Paul II will be something that I will never forget. However, we each get a chance to encounter the living God, the Father who loves each and every one of us.