Your Holiness, is this a realistic hope? Or are we adults only indulging in the illusion that each new generation will be better than ours and all those that came before?
Here you open an enormous field for discussion and reflection.
What are young people of today like, what are they looking for? It could be said that they are the same as ever. There is something in man which never changes, as the Council recalled in Gaudium et Spes (10). This is true especially in the young. But today's youth are also different from those who came before. In the past, the younger generations were shaped by the painful experience of war, of concentration camps, of constant danger. This experience allowed young people-I imagine all over the world, although I have Polish youth in mind-to develop traits of great heroism.
I think of the Warsaw uprising in 1944-the desperate revolt of my contemporaries, who sacrificed everything. They laid down their young lives. They wanted to demonstrate that they could live up to their great and demanding heritage. I was a part of that generation and I must say that the heroism of my contemporaries helped me to define my personal vocation. Father Konstanty Michalski, one of the great professors at the Jagellonian University in Kraków, wrote the book Between Heroism and Brutality after returning from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The title of this book captures the climate of the times. Referring to Friar Albert Chmielowski, Michalski recalled the words of the Gospel about the need "to give up one's life" (cf. Jn 15:13). Precisely in that period of absolute contempt for man, when the price of human life had perhaps never been considered so cheap, precisely then each life became precious, acquiring the value of a free gift.
In this regard, today's young people certainly grow up in a different context. They do not carry within them the experiences of the Second World War. Furthermore, many of them have not known-or do not remember-the struggle against Communism, against the totalitarian state. They live in freedom, which others have won for them, and have yielded in large part to the consumer culture. This is, in broad terms, the status of the present situation.
All the same, it is difficult to say that the young have rejected traditional values, that they have left the Church. The experiences of teachers and pastors confirm, today no less than yesterday, the idealism present in young people, even if nowadays it perhaps tends to be expressed mostly in the form of criticism, whereas before it would have translated more simply into duty. In general, the younger generations grow up in an atmosphere marked by a new positivism, whereas in Poland, when I was a boy, romantic traditions prevailed. The young people with whom I came into contact after I was ordained as a priest believed in these traditions. In the Church and in the Gospel they saw a point of reference which helped them to focus their inner strength, to lead their lives in a way that made sense. I still remember my conversations with those young people who spoke of their relationship with the faith in precisely these terms.
My most memorable experience of that period, when my pastoral activities concentrated above all on the young, was the discovery of the fundamental importance of youth. What is youth? It is not only a period of life that corresponds to a certain number of years, it is also a time given by Providence to every person and given to him as a responsibility. During that time he searches, like the young man in the Gospel, for answers to basic questions; he searches not only for the meaning of life but also for a concrete way to go about living his life. This is the most fundamental characteristic of youth. Every mentor, beginning with parents, let alone every pastor, must be aware of this characteristic and must know how to identify it in every boy and girl. I will say more: He must love this fundamental aspect of youth.
If at every stage of his life man desires to be his own person, to find love, during his youth he desires it even more strongly. The desire to be one's own person, however, must not be understood as a license to do anything, without exception. The young do not want that at all-they are willing to be corrected, they want to be told yes or no. They need guides, and they want them close at hand. If they turn to authority figures, they do so because they see in them a wealth of human warmth and a willingness to walk with them along the paths they are following.
Clearly, then, the fundamental problem of youth is profoundly personal. In life, youth is when we come to know ourselves. It is also a time of communion. Young people, whether boys or girls, know they must live for and with others, they know that their life has meaning to the extent that it becomes a free gift for others. Here is the origin of all vocations-whether to priesthood or religious life, or to marriage and family. The call to marriage is also a vocation, a gift from God. I will never forget a young man, an engineering student in Kraków, who everyone knew aspired with determination to holiness. This was his life plan. He knew he had been "created for greater things," as Saint Stanislaus Kostka once expressed it. And at the same time, he had no doubt that his vocation was neither to priesthood nor to religious life. He knew he was called to remain in the secular world. Technical work, the study of engineering, was his passion. He sought a companion for his life and sought her on his knees, in prayer. I will never forget the conversation in which, after a special day of retreat, he said to me: "I think that this is the woman who should be my wife, that it is God who has given her to me." It was almost as if he were following not only the voice of his own wishes but above all the voice of God Himself. He knew that all good things come from Him, and he made a good choice. I am speaking of Jerzy Ciesielski, who died in a tragic accident in the Sudan, where he had been invited to teach at the University. The cause for his beatification is already under way.
It is this vocation to love that naturally allows us to draw close to the young. As a priest I realized this very early. I felt almost an inner call in this direction. It is necessary to prepare young people for marriage, it is necessary to teach them love. Love is not something that is learned, and yet there is nothing else as important to learn! As a young priest I learned to love human love. This has been one of the fundamental themes of my priesthood-my ministry in the pulpit, in the confessional, and also in my writing. If one loves human love, there naturally arises the need to commit oneself completely to the service of "fair love," because love is fair, it is beautiful.
After all, young people are always searching for the beauty in love. They want their love to be beautiful. If they give in to weakness, following models of behavior that can rightly be considered a "scandal in the contemporary world" (and these are, unfortunately, widely diffused models), in the depths of their hearts they still desire a beautiful and pure love. This is as true of boys as it is of girls. Ultimately, they know that only God can give them this love. As a result, they are willing to follow Christ, without caring about the sacrifices this may entail.
As a young priest and pastor I came to this way of looking at young people and at youth, and it has remained constant all these years. It is an outlook which also allows me to meet young people wherever I go. Every parish priest in Rome knows that my visits to the parish must conclude with a meeting between the Bishop of Rome and the young people of the parish. And not only in Rome, but anywhere the Pope goes, he seeks out the young and the young seek him out. Actually, in truth, it is not the Pope who is being sought out at all. The one being sought out is Christ, who knows "that which is in every man" (cf. Jn 2:25), especially in a young person, and who can give true answers to his questions! And even if they are demanding answers, the young are not afraid of them; more to the point, they even await them.
This also explains the idea of holding World Youth Days. At the very beginning, during the Jubilee Year of the Redemption, and then again for the International Year of Youth, sponsored by the United Nations (1985), young people were invited to Rome. This was the beginning. No one invented the World Youth Days. It was the young people themselves who
created them. Those Days, those encounters, then
became something desired by young people throughout the world. Most of the time these Days were something of a surprise for priests, and even bishops, in that they surpassed all their expectations.
The World Youth Days have become a great and fascinating witness that young people give of themselves. They have become a powerful means of evangelization. In the young there is, in fact, an immense potential for good and for creative possibility. Whenever I meet them in my travels throughout the world, I wait first of all to hear what they want to tell me about themselves, about their society, about their Church. And I always point out: "What I am going to say to you is not as important as what you are going to say to me. You will not necessarily say it to me in words; you will say it to me by your presence, by your song, perhaps by your dancing, by your skits, and finally by your enthusiasm."
We need the enthusiasm of the young. We need their joie de vivre. In it is reflected something of the original joy God had in creating man. The young experience this same joy within themselves. This joy is the same everywhere, but it is also ever new and original. The young know how to express this joy in their own special way.
It is not true that the Pope brings the young from one end of the world to the other. It is they who bring him. Even though he is getting older, they urge him to be young, they do not permit him to forget his experience, his discovery of youth and its great importance for the life of every man. I believe this explains a great deal.
The very day of the inauguration of my papal ministry, on October 22, 1978, at the conclusion of the liturgy, I said to the young people gathered in St. Peter's Square: "You are the hope of the Church and of the world. You are my hope." I have often repeated these words.
I would like to sum up by stressing that the young are searching for God, they are searching for the meaning of life, they are searching for definitive answers: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Lk 10:25). In this search, they cannot help but encounter the Church. And the Church also cannot help but encounter the young. The only necessity is that the Church have a profound understanding of what it means to be young, of the importance that youth has for every person. It is also necessary that the young know the Church, that they perceive Christ in the Church, Christ who walks through the centuries alongside each generation, alongside every person. He walks alongside each person as a friend. An important day in a young person's life is the day on which he becomes convinced that this is the only Friend who will not disappoint him, on whom he can always count.