The coming of spring in the Northern Hemisphere conveys new hope as we contemplate the future of our Church. Pope John Paul II set a high standard as a peacemaker, heroically standing up to the advocates of war, torture, and indifference to the plight of the poor. One day 25 years ago, he brought to America a newly urgent sense of Christ's message, which is more relevant than ever today.
In the autumn of 1979, he stood on the Boston Common in a downpour, smiling and bathed in light as he gave his impassioned homily from a brilliant white stage in the darkness. People had camped on the Common the night before to get the best places, many staking out their blankets with little fences or ropes. Venders were everywhere selling all manner of Pope-abilia, from buttons to portrait-bearing commode covers. And then the most remarkable thing happened. The skies opened up, and a downpour seemed to catch everyone by surprise. All the venders disappeared, and all the blankets came up off the muddy ground. People clustered together beneath the few umbrellas, and suddenly the Pope appeared in his little car, rolling slowly and serenely through the crowd.
His first words were, "I greet you, America the beautiful." The crowd screamed with delight. Hope filled the wet air, and everyone there seemed so proud of both Catholicism and Christianity. The gospel that day was from Matthew 19:13-22, the story of the young man who had followed all the Commandments, but was discouraged at the prospect of having to sell all he had in order to follow Christ. When the Pope began his homily, he appealed specifically to the young people in this university city and across America. He said, "The sadness of the young man makes us reflect. We could be tempted to think that many possessions, many of the goods of this world, can bring happiness. We see instead in the case of the young man in the Gospel that his many possessions had become an obstacle to accepting the call of Jesus to follow him. He was not ready to say yes to Jesus, and no to self, to say yes to love and no to escape...In its precise eloquence this deeply penetrating event expresses a great lesson in a few words. It touches upon substantial problems and basic questions that have in no way lost their relevance. Everywhere young people are asking important questions - questions on the meaning of life, on the right way to live, on the scale of values: 'What must I do…?' 'What must I do to share in everlasting life?'… To each one of you I say therefore: heed the call of Christ when you hear him saying to you: 'Follow me!' Walk in my path! Stand by my side! Remain in my love! There is a choice to be made: a choice for Christ and his way of life, and his commandment of love.'"
With a rhythmic cadence which elicited ever increasing excitement, he exhorted the crowd thick with college students to reject the selfishness of the world and choose "the option of love." Repeatedly he uttered the words, "Follow Christ!"
"You who are married: share your love and your burdens with each other; respect the human dignity of your spouses; accept joyfully the life that God gives through you; make your marriage stable and secure for your children's sake. Follow Christ! You who are single or who are preparing for marriage. Follow Christ! You who are young or old. Follow Christ! You who are sick or ageing, who are suffering or in pain. You who feel the need for healing, the need for love, the need for a friend - follow Christ!
"The message of love that Christ brought is always important, always relevant. It is not difficult to see how today's world, despite its beauty and grandeur, despite the conquests of science and technology, despite the refined and abundant material it offers, is yearning for more truth, for more love, for more joy. And all of this is found in Christ and in his way of life...It is part of your task in the world and the Church to reveal the true meaning of life where hatred, neglect or selfishness threaten to take over the world...Faced with problems and disappointments, many people will try to escape from their responsibility: escape in selfishness, escape in violence, escape in indifference and cynical attitudes. But today, I propose to you the option of love, which is the opposite of escape. If you really accept love from Christ, it will lead you to God. Perhaps in the priesthood or religious life; perhaps in some special service to your brothers and sisters: especially to the needy, the poor, the lonely, the abandoned, those whose rights have been trampled upon, or those whose basic needs have not been provided for. Whatever you make of your life, let it be something that reflects the love of Christ."
In an era when every statesman wanted to be seen with the Pope, but few had the courage to renounce violence as Jesus insisted we must, the beginnings of a new Papacy offer us a chance for reflection on our own convictions. When others treat us with disrespect, do we respond in anger? When someone isn't listening to us, do we shout to force their attention? When someone possesses something we covet (like the world's second largest known petroleum reserves), is "preserving our way of life" an adequate reason to claim these things as our own at all costs?
We pray now for our next pope and for the one who has left us. But our focus must remain on Christ himself. We pray that the Holy Spirit will steer our Church away from the temptation to cozy up to the princes of this world. Moreover may the Spirit restore all of us to a true sense of Christ's vision for the unconditional love of friends and enemies, about which John Paul spoke so richly on that October evening 25 years ago.