World Youth Day participants’ refections on Pope John Paul II

His Greatest Accomplishment

By Jenny Bales
April 2005

What will be the legacy of Pope John Paul II? Bringing about the fall of the iron curtain? Traveling more than any previous pontiff? Preaching boldly on all facets of modern life? Influencing United Nations decisions regarding population control? Surviving an assassination attempt and forgiving his assassin? Bearing the intense suffering of his declining health? Clarifying church doctrine through countless documents and the new Catechism? Enduring constant criticism? Speaking out for men, women, and children of every culture? Standing up for human dignity, specifically for the poor and vulnerable? Inspiring people of various faiths?

No. None of these are Pope John Paul II’s greatest accomplishment. His greatest accomplishment is a story told time and time again.

I attended World Youth Day in Denver in 1993. A typical American teenager, I had not ever thought seriously about my faith. Actually, as I listened to Pope John Paul II speak I was initially very skeptical of his message, but I soon realized he spoke the truth. He inspired me to think of life from a viewpoint less mired in the perspective of the world, something radically different from what I had ever heard before. Now, I have a better appreciation for my faith and the motivation to evaluate my beliefs, not let the rest of the world decide my beliefs for me. (Tony Reiter, College Station, Texas)

As a young professional, I see many of my peers struggling to find hope in a consumer society. The Holy Father preached hope. We listened, because when a pope invested his joy in us and opened a deep place in his heart for us, one could not help but enter and enter with intense conviction. Intimately familiar with hardship and suffering, he endured many times in his early life with no one to lean on but God. Also no stranger to profound love, he looked compassionately upon those suffering most in the world. He did not merely tell them to keep their hopes up. He joined their suffering, and they joined his God-given hope. This was the kind of hope for which our generation longed, and we found it with John Paul II. (Adrian Benson, Fredericksburg, Virginia)

I attended both World Youth Days in Denver and Toronto. I found John Paul II’s message relevant and empowering to me in a very personal way. This Pope met youth on our level, empowered us to change the world, and showed us that adults and the Church believe in us. Most people in such positions of authority did not truly listen to us or address our concerns. He gave us each the value and worth we struggled to find. When he spoke, he spoke to my interests, and for some crazy reason I felt like he knew me! (Alexis Dobson, Austin, Texas)

Yes, Pope John Paul II’s greatest accomplishment will forever be his impact on an entire generation of young people — Catholics, Protestants, and non-Christians alike.

This is my generation. We have recently begun to vote, entered the workforce, started families, and embraced priestly or religious vocations. Pope John Paul II challenged us, formed us, and most significantly, loved us. He had a dramatic influence on our lives.

As youth in desperate need of clear guidance in our troubled world, John Paul II gave us such wise counsel. He believed we are the answer to the world’s problems and listened to our needs and concerns. In response, we listened to him. We know he loved us. We listened to his love, and we saw it in his tired face. We know he endured pain, physical and emotional, throughout his life. We listened to the truths he spoke and found a different message than the rest of society gives us. His was a message of hope.

Most psychologists agree children need boundaries to guide them, and some use the comparison of rails on a bridge. When we walk on a bridge without side rails, we walk carefully in the precise center of the bridge for fear of getting too close to the edge. On the other hand, when we walk on a bridge with railings, we walk right alongside those railings and all over the bridge, knowing we will not fall off if we do not cross the rails. John Paul II’s messages gave young people the boundaries we needed to live free, responsible lives to roam the entire bridge without fear.

This Holy Father never compromised his beliefs or the teachings of the Church, earning him incomparable respect from youth. He explained the logical consequences of life’s choices and challenged us to choose to follow the will of God with courage. Youth, enveloped in a fear of uncertainty, embraced his black-and-white guidance in a world of muddled gray.

My generation knew no other pope. To us he was the papacy. John Paul II stood firm and strong even through his last days. Many of my generation have barely survived their parents’ divorces, remarriages, and blended families. A spiritual father to a mostly fatherless generation, he demonstrated the strength and constancy we needed in our tumultuous adolescence.

Young adults today want to build strong families. We want our children to have fathers, and John Paul II stood up for families and gave us a roadmap of love and self-sacrifice to follow. Because of this, we believe our marriages will survive. We teach our young children about our spiritual father, naming them after him and calling him Papa (Italian for Pope) in our homes, endearing yet another generation to this great man.

Our generation has seen the unethical practices that have destroyed corporations, individuals, and families; therefore, we strive for ethics and integrity in our every action. This Pope challenged each individual to grow in holiness each day, to love more and to pray more. His impact, as universal as Gandhi’s and Mother Teresa’s, made him a star of modern pop culture. Youth admired his strong beliefs, which led us to confidently seek our own and not blindly accept whatever the culture tells us.

We are Pope John Paul II’s generation and the new leaders of families and businesses around the world. He recognized this more than any other leader of our time. This will forever be his greatest accomplishment — loving the youth of the world. And we love him back. His influence on our lives has changed us forever and will forever change our world and our culture for the better!

We, like many of our friends, went to Rome after our wedding to have our marriage blessed by Pope John Paul II. He granted special audiences for newlyweds, and there we met the Pope face to face. We will treasure the experience forever and tell our children we met the one-day Saint John Paul the Great, Doctor of the Church! I told him, “We promise to raise saints. This is my challenge now in mothering — to lead my children to heaven as I promised him I would. Our first child was born one year to the date of our audience with Pope John Paul II. Our second is due this month. (Blair & Steven Bailey, Houston, Texas)

What a lasting impact! What a great accomplishment! This will be the legacy of Pope John Paul II as he enjoys his eternal reward!

Jenny Bales is a former CCG member from Bryan, Texas. (