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Papal bravura taps hunger for meaning

Pope John Paul II's late-August mission to France and his participation in World Youth Day was a personal triumph, one of spirit over body: the spirit lifted by the hope of youth; the body weakened by age and affliction.

It is widely known that the pontiff wants to lead the church into the 21st century. Though the ranks of doubters have grown with the passing months, few any longer underestimate the determination of Karol Wojtyla even at age 77.

In Paris for the six-day youth festival, he frequently appeared exhausted, only to make another spirited appearance hours later, walking uncertainly, hand trembling but with steadfast purpose and clear mind.

This was the successor of Peter, the rock, the Polish prelate who appeared before a million youngsters -- twice as many as expected -- during a three-hour, open-air Mass in 94-degree heat.

He's the only Catholic pope the youngsters have ever known.

Pope John Paul must have left Paris with a smile on his face. Among the popes of the 20th century, he is second to none in showmanship. And World Youth Day was a spectacular $42 million show -- with the pope as both headliner and master of ceremonies.

The papal extravaganza had skimmed lessons from rock concerts and previous papal trips in an effort to secure from youthful idealism a lifelong spiritual commitment.

"Your journey does not end here," John Paul told a hymn-singing crowd of people from 160 countries who had spent the night spread out over the 135 acres of the Longchamps race track.

"Continue to contemplate God's glory and God's love and you will receive the enlightenment needed to build the civilization of love, to help our brothers and sisters to see the world transfigured by eternal wisdom and love."

Observers said there was a discernible change of mood in Paris as tens of thousands of pilgrims filled the city.

"This event tells me I'm not alone and gives me spiritual encouragement," one youngster was quoted as saying.

The key to John Paul's success in touching young spirits appears to lie in his ability to respond to their search for meaning and spiritual direction. His forceful conservative ecclesial message provided a solid base, but it included repeated calls to idealism.

Young people need "reasons for living and goals that will motivate their generosity," John Paul remarked.

So do we all.

A mix of meaning, hope, idealism and generosity in the name of Christ is a potent attraction even today. If the Paris trip has a lesson for the rest of the church, it may be that the basics of Christianity and the full force of its exalted and even arduous message may still be the high road to the human heart and soul.

National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 1997