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John Paul II, youth minister

The irony is that the most successful papal youth minister in modern history, and perhaps all history, was largely ignored in Synod-2018’s working document.

Paula Olearnik of Poland embraces Pope John Paul II during a celebration with young people in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 1, 2004. (CNS photo by Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

Pole that he was, Karol Wojtyla had a well-developed sense of historical irony. So from his present position in the Communion of Saints, he might be struck by the ironic fact that the Synod on “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” currently underway in Rome, coincides with the 40th anniversary of his election as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978.

What’s the irony? The irony is that the most successful papal youth minister in modern history, and perhaps all history, was largely ignored in Synod-2018’s working document. And the Synod leadership under Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri seems strangely reluctant to invoke either his teaching or his example.

But let’s get beyond irony. What are some lessons the Synod might draw from John Paul II, pied piper of the young, on this ruby anniversary of his election?

1) The big questions remain the same.

Several bishops at Synod-2018 have remarked that today’s young people are living in a completely different world than when the bishops in question grew up. There’s obviously an element of truth here, but there’s also a confusion between ephemera and the permanent things.

When Cardinal Adam Sapieha assigned young Father Wojtyla to St. Florian’s parish in 1948, in order to start a ministry to the university students who lived nearby, things in Cracow were certainly different than they were when Wojtyla was a student at the Jagiellonian University in 1938-39. In 1948, Poland was in the deep freeze of Stalinism and organized Catholic youth work was banned. The freewheeling social and cultural life in which Wojtyla had reveled before the Nazis shut down the Jagiellonian was no more, and atheistic propaganda was on tap in many classrooms. But Wojtyla knew that the Big Questions that engage young adults — What’s my purpose in life? How do I form lasting friendships? What is noble and what is base? How do I navigate the rocks and shoals of life without making fatal compromises? What makes for true happiness? — are always the same. They always have been, and they always will be.

To tell today’s young adults that they’re completely different is pandering, and it’s a form of disrespect. To help maturing adults ask the big questions and wrestle with the permanent things is to pay them the compliment of taking them seriously. Wojtyla knew that, and so should the bishops of Synod-2018.

2) Walking with young adults should lead somewhere.

Some of the Wojtyla kids from that university ministry at St. Florian’s have become friends of mine, and when I ask them what he was like as a companion, spiritual director, and confessor, they always stress two points: masterful listening that led to penetrating conversations, and an insistence on personal responsibility. As one of them once put it to me, “We’d talk for hours and he’d shed light on a question, but I never heard him say ‘You should do this.’ What he’d always say was, ‘You must choose’.” For Karol Wojtyla, youth minister, gently but persistently compelling serious moral decisions was the real meaning of “accompaniment” (a Synod-2018 buzzword).

3) Heroism is never out of fashion.

When, as pope, John Paul II proposed launching what became World Youth Day, most of the Roman Curia thought he had taken leave of his senses: young adults in the late-20th century just weren’t interested in an international festival involving catechesis, the Way of the Cross, confession, and the Eucharist. John Paul, by contrast, understood that the adventure of leading a life of heroic virtue was just as compelling in late modernity as it had been in his day, and he had confidence that future leaders of the third millennium of Christian history would answer that call to adventure.

That didn’t mean they’d be perfect. But as he said to young people on so many occasions, “Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that God’s grace makes possible in your life. You’ll fail; we all do. But don’t lower the bar of expectation. Get up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation. But never, ever settle for anything less than the heroism for which you were born.”

That challenge — that confidence that young adults really yearn to live with an undivided heart — began a renaissance in young adult and campus ministry in the living parts of the world Church. Synod-2018 should ponder this experience take it very, very seriously.

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About George Weigel 484 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. Maybe he was left out because two researchers in the USA warned him that sex abuse was a large problem mid ‘80s which was when the Gauthe case was on all tv’s news….and he refused to engage it with zeal. He could have declared that all such cases needed police involvement in rational countries immediately. He did not. Court records showed his CDF office had an audio tape of Fr. Shanley’s bizarre gay ideas in 1979….in about mid ‘80’s, Shanley was promoted to pastor and molested two boys. The Pope and Ratzinger failed to stop that promotion. Stop the snow jobs concerning the Popes of those decades. They wanted to be above the police in an area wherein they should have rendered to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Similarly, both men later wanted murderers to be above the state’s execution capacity….a capacity said to be Godly by Rom.13:4. And they’ll all be saints which technically is possible as to Heaven since millions of Catholics receive a plenary indulgence at death despite a life checkered with falls. Heroic virtue…yes because facing the pains of extreme old age takes heroic virtue. Protected the young? No.

    • Your comment is ludicrous. Pope Saint John Paul II is now worthless because of perceived apathy about sone ill-defined abuse that occurred under his watch somewhere? Guess we better dismiss all the Popes of history then, since there have been more than a few sinners amongst us during that time. JPII’s World Youth Day legacy you clearly ignore.

      • Ill defined? One World Youth Day as more valuable than Catholic teachers spending tens of thousands of days with children at below public school pay? I taught four years of days in the worst part of the Newark ghetto…two murders near our school. You sound like samton909 but I’m sure you are you and he is he. How was it ill defined if two researchers submitted an extensive report to him mid 80’s…and it was on tv news with the Fr. Gauthe case involving 37 children…later on the tv magazine show 60 minutes. And his own cdf office had an audio tape sent in by a layman… of Fr. Shanley’s speech in 1979. How is any of that ill defined?
        Worthless? No I said he is in heaven by the heroic virtue of enduring the pains of old age…with which advanced elderly, I do weekly volunteer work now for two years unless sick myself. You got worthless out of that because you are in narrative mode like Samton909 often is. A narrative is a painting and like a painting…it leaves out realities in order to achieve beauty. A good seascape will leave coke cans out of the ocean water and it will have perfectly clean beaches with no cigarette butts. You are conflating art with here and now history. The two should be different but often are not when a person needs an unrealistic grand hero.

  2. Thank you, Mr. Weigel, for reminding us of some of the guiding principles of his pontificate. If he had stayed a priest in Krakow, he’d have been the best youth minster of all time. I personally know many who were transformed by the Denver WYD alone, though I regret never having seen him myself. On that, however, we have you to thank for bringing him to us with Witness To Hope. Every page of that massive book was a gift from him which you channeled.

      • Bill critical thinking and the art of narrative are polar opposites. Reality oft lies somewhere betwixt. You may be entirely right that John Paul II had full knowledge of Shanley among others during his watch and declined to take action. Management of a small corporation can be difficult a global corp impossible sans intermediary lines of honest, competent communication men dedicated to yours and the firm’s best interests. The Church knowing what we now know? Your point is well taken and I’ve had issue with that as well as Benedict XVI when he was Archbishop of Munich. Personally I can’t believe either Pontiff would have condoned what occurred during their watch if they had the cold facts set before them. But then that is opinion, somewhat like believing Justice Kavanaugh’s sterling juridical record and similarly the accusation that he was a teenage drunken brawler and serial rapist.

        • We need an outside consultancy to come in and analyze how our decline in several areas came about. In the Navy, a Captain is responsible for anything untoward that happens on any deck. In our Church…the opposite obtains, the Pope is responsible for nothing bad that happens…even when he is the problem to normal minds from outside our culture. Weigel is a business. He critiques a Pope to a point but never in the worst area of that Pope…because Catholics don’t want to hear the worst at all…and as a biographer, he needs access for the next book. If Elijah the prophet wrote a biography of John Paul II in 1999, you can bet access would be denied for a second book.

        • Your comment starts out well but when you bring in Judge Kavanaugh it loses its validity.

          In the 6 previous investigations of the Judge by the FBI NOTHING turned up that would even remotely hint at his being a predator or a rapist. The accusations were the last desperate act of the democrats to delay a vote until after election day when it had become clear that that was their last desperate chance. NONE of the accusations was found to be valid at all, and I fervently hope that they pay at the ballot box this November.

          • You must be referring to me Terry since I alone referenced Justice Kavanaugh. What I said was intended as laughable irony. In other words the two extremes seem too preposterous to believe.

  3. A man who loved people and a thinker Fr Karol Wojtyla spent much of his early priesthood camping, hiking, skiing with Polish youth boys and girls. A kind of Aristotle he wished to observe first hand interaction and deepen his knowledge. His answers to the questions G Weigel attributes to John Paul II were probably answered during those early years. Paul VI seeking to develop a doctrine of love in respect to contraception consulted Wojtyla. Insofar as John Paul’s splendid background with youth – I fully agree with Weigel that no pontiff comes close – I am not surprised that he was ignored during the recent Youth symposium. John Paul followed Christ. Pope Francis is offering the world the gospel according to Pope Francis. For example his compatriot Fr Spadaro chortled recently that Benedict XVI focused on writing books, Francis instead is engaged with humanity. Insofar as John Paul II the New paradigm Vatican has avoided direct insult due to his enduring popularity. Only preposterous misquotes, misinterpretations of Consortio Familiaris to bolster Amoris Laetitia.

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