Pope Francis has an extraordinary fascination for young people. He became Pope at the age of 77. Those who were familiar with the extraordinary capacity of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, to connect with the youth had doubts about Pope Francis’ ability to vibe with them. But their scepticism vanished within months after Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who became Pope Francis on 13 March 2013, assumed leadership of the worldwide Catholic Church. Bergoglio, the first Pope from the Americas, chose the name Francis in honour of the medieval Italian saint, Francis of Assisi, a man known for gentleness and humility, and love for nature.
Pope Francis has now become, for millions of youth across the world, “A loving Papa” or as the Filipinos call him, their dear Lolo Kiko or Grandpa. It is enough to have a glimpse of what thousands of youth write to Pope Francis in response to his social media posts to know how much they love him. Pope Francis’ young admirers hail from different parts of the world and belong to different nationalities, ethnic groups and faiths. They have a rare bonding with him, a high decibel of trust that characterizes their communication with him.
Pope Francis has infused a new level of energy and passion into the youth, who may be affluent or in abject poverty or lack employment, the migrants or the homeless. Wherever he goes, Pope Francis takes special time with young people. His encounters with the youth are personal, intimate, stimulating. With a father’s heart, he is able to listen, encourage and exhort them, and comfort them. The young people, in turn, sense in his words and actions a genuine love and concern for them, an unsullied sincerity, a deep understanding of their needs and aspirations. After an encounter with him, their spirits soar.
Addressing the youth who had gathered in Rome from different parts of the world prior to the Synod of Bishops on the theme of Youth in October 2018, Pope Francis said: “I want you to be the centre of attention, because you are in my heart.” In Krakow, Poland, at the opening of the World Youth Day in 2016, he asked the youth several times: “Can we change things?” And they shouted: “Yes!” The Pope later said, “That shout came from your young and youthful hearts, which do not tolerate injustice and cannot bow to a “throw-away culture” nor give in to the globalization of indifference.”
Urging young people to undertake the journey of life with trust in God, Pope Francis told them: “I am sure that despite the noise and confusion seemingly prevalent in our world, God’s call continues to resonate in the depths of your hearts so as to open it to joy in its fullness. Even when the journey is uncertain and you fall, God, rich in mercy, will extend his hand to pick you up.”
On another occasion the Pope told the youth, “We need your momentum, your intuitions, your faith.” In his characteristic simplicity, he then told them, “When you arrive where we have not yet reached, have the patience to wait for us!” He told them that a better world can be built also as a result of their efforts, their desire to change and their generosity.
At the closing ceremony of the World Youth Day in Panama in 2019, Pope Francis issued a powerful “wake-up” call to some three million youth from 155 countries: “Dear young people, you are not the future but the ‘now’ of God. He invites you and calls you to go out and find your grandparents and elders; to stand up and with them to speak out and realize the dream that God has for you.”
He urged them as they waved the flags of their home countries, to “realize that you have a mission; fall in love with it; that alone will decide everything.” He reminded them: “We may possess everything, but if we lack the passion of love, we will have nothing!”
The vast majority of young people had slept in tents or sleeping bags in the extensive Metro Park in Panama City, overnight, after attending an evening prayer vigil with the Pope. At six o’clock, they received a stirring wake-up call over the public address system, to the sound of drums and music. But that was nothing compared to the wake-up call that Pope Francis issued them in the presence of the presidents of Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Portugal.
Francis, who as a young man graduated in chemical engineering before deciding to become a priest, told the youth: “God’s merciful love does not wait for ideal or perfect situations to show itself, nor does it accept excuses for its appearance. It is God’s time that makes every situation and place both right and proper… In your school you take part in various activities that habituate you not to shut yourselves in on yourselves or in your small world, but to be open to others, especially to the poorest and the neediest, to work to improve the world in which we live. Be men and women with others and for others, real champions in the service of others.”
His fatherly words touched them deeply. “Getting here was not easy. I know how much effort and sacrifice was required for you to participate in this Youth Day. Many weeks of hard work, commitment, encounters, reflection and prayer have made the journey itself largely its own reward. This is the great joy: keep walking. You have not been afraid to take risks and to keep journeying.”
We come from different cultures and peoples, we speak different languages and we wear different clothes. Each of our peoples has had a different history and lived through different situations. We are different in so many ways! But, none of it has stopped us from meeting one another and rejoicing to be together. The reason for this, we know, is that something unites us. Someone is a brother to us. We have made many sacrifices to be able to meet one another and in this way you have become true teachers and builders of the culture of encounter.”
“By your actions and your approach, your way of looking at things, your desires and above all your sensitivity, you discredit and defuse the kind of talk that is intent on sowing division, on excluding or rejecting those who are not ‘like us’.” Quoting his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, he said, “It is because you have that instinct which knows intuitively that true love does not eliminate legitimate differences, but harmonizes them in a superior unity.”
He urged them to accept differences gracefully. “You teach us that encountering one another does not mean having to look alike, or think the same way or do the same things, listening to the same music or wearing the same jersey. No, not at all… The culture of encounter is a call inviting us to dare to keep alive a shared dream: a great dream that has a place for everyone.”
He called for a renewed mindset among those committed to serve the youth. “Young people”, he said, “often fail to find responses to their concerns, needs, problems and hurts in the usual structures. As adults, we find it hard to listen patiently to them, to appreciate their concerns, demands, and to speak to them in a language they can understand. Let us encourage them with generosity which is typical of the young and help them to work actively in building a better world. Youth do not solely need material things. Above all, they need to have those non-material values which are the spiritual heart of a people… spirituality, generosity, solidarity, fraternity, and joy.”
He went on to ask the young people what keeps them united and what prompts them to encounter each other, himself giving them the answer: “The certainty of knowing that we have been loved with a profound love that we neither can nor want to keep quiet about… a love that challenges us to respond in the same way: with love.”
He qualified that love as something which does not overwhelm or oppress, cast aside or reduce to silence, humiliate or domineer. It is the love of God! It is the quiet love of a hand outstretched to serve, a commitment that draws no attention to itself.
Young people who have met Pope Francis even once know that there is a magnetic power in him that can attract them, touch them and transform them. His words come from the heart of a father who loves them intimately, unconditionally. For them, meeting Pope Francis is encountering a man whose heart is on fire with a rare passion for God and for people.