I was born in November of 1978. I was baptised on December 10th of that year. For the 26 years of my life in the Church I have had only one Holy Father. The Church that I have grown up in, been formed by, belong to has been a Church led by the Holy Spirit through a courageous, generous, loving Pole who has taught the Church how to live a life in front of Christ.
As a young boy I don't remember hearing much about the Pope, but by the time I was in high school, with his visit to Denver, I was very much aware of this little man in white who kept saying "John Paul II loves you too." I'm not sure why I, maybe it was the strength with which he said it, but from the first time I heard those words I have believed him.
Throughout high school I tried to learn about him. Often the information was quite good, but many times it was ideological complaints about his "conservatism" or his unwillingness to allow change or his opposition to woman becoming priests. I remember in particular one of the nuns from our town (we only had 4) once said "The problem with these Pollacks is that they don't die quick enough." She was angry that Pope John Paul II taught that the ministerial priesthood of Christ could only be conferred upon men, as Christ himself had done.
Many times in my youth I was tempted by these "liberal" ideas. They were new to me, rather avante guarde and I wanted so much to be different, cosmopolitan, cultured. I thought that these liberal ideas went along with that culture, and you can imagine for a boy from a small town, how it looks that way. However, despite becoming quite theologically liberal (in particular my first year of university) I never could quite shake the indisputable awareness I had of the Holy Father's love for me. This never seemed abstract to me. I always felt that if I had the opportunity to meet him, that he would give me a kiss on the forehead as I had seen him do so many times before. I was sure that he was a man that was completely in love with Christ, and somehow I was aware that he would see me and love me.
As I began to study theology and philosophy at Notre Dame, slowly the liberal ideas I had ideologically taken up began to fall apart. They fall apart for a variety of reasons, but undoubtedly the single greatest factor was the face of that Polish Pope who kept reiterating the traditional teachings of the Church but also demonstrated an indisputable witness of a man fully and completely devoted and in love with Christ. As I began to take my faith and my life more seriously I recognized that I wanted to be a Christian like Pope John Paul II was a Christian.
Pope John Paul II wasn't a pansy. He wasn't a man who was heirarchical or distant or cold. He wasn't a man who busied himself with the beauracracy of the Church and ignored the grandeur of life. He wasn't a man who lived in ideas and away from reality. Overall, when I looked at Pope John Paul II I saw virility, I saw devotion, I saw love . . . I saw something radical. In the Pope I saw the radicality of the Christian life, a radicality that was courageous in the face of opposition and adversity, full of vigor in front of life, full of awareness in front of reality and full of love in front of humanity.
I saw the tape of him in El Salvador and Nicaragua preaching against Marxism to the Sandino government. I saw in the United States preaching marital fidelity and openness to life in the face of 75% contraception use, an appalling abortion rate, and 50% divorce. I saw him travelling to Muslim countries and announcing the Presence of Christ. I saw him visiting Jewish synagogues and reminding Christians that salvation is from the Jews. I saw the Pope challenge the secular intellectual climate with the reasonableness of faith. And finally, I saw an old, aged, weak, sick man follow Christ to the cross and demonstrate that there is great power in weakness.
Over the 26 years of my life I have looked at Pope John Paul II and seen Christ. This pope showed me Christ. And I most grateful to him for one fact in particular. The pope has generously encouraged and tended a relationship with Msgr. Giussani and Communion and Liberation. It has been through my encounter with Christ trough Msgr. Giussani and the charism of CL that my Christian life has begun to be taken seriously. It was through this movement, and its closeness to Pope John Paul II that I have desired to follow him in this radical love.
Above all, this has been John Paul II's great lesson to the world. Many will reduce it to a number of political or ecclesiastical acheivements, but when I look at and remember and pray to Pope John Paul II, it will be for him to obtain for me the favor of this radical love. I want to follow Christ, to love Christ, and to love life --mylife-- with the same radical love that I saw in Pope John Paul II. I thank the Pope for his witness, for his devotion, and most of all for his love. The youth of the world love Pope John Paul II because he first loved us. May we be faithful to what he has taught us.