Faith: Springtime for the pope

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent
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WASHINGTON, July 24 (UPI) -- What is it about Pope John Paul II that makes him so appealing to young people? Why do they rush, now in Canada as before in France, by the thousands to this 82-year-old man, whose hand is shaking uncontrollably from Parkinson's disease?

Why are they not put off by the fact that he is often barely audible and keeps dabbing spittle from his mouth? Why do they flock to him rather than some snazzy yuppie cleric with a tailor-made dog collar under his immaculately shaved and perfumed chin?


Because it's springtime for trustworthy old men -- springtime for integrity.

John Paul's popularity among the young -- and not only Roman Catholics -- is simply the most visible manifestation of a phenomenon that should give boomers and post-boomers pause.


Walter Wilson, a 65-year-old former top executive who fishes for young souls on the Internet, speaks of a "grandfather syndrome." Joe Davis, an executive vice president with Salem Communications, the country's largest Christian media corporation, says he and his colleagues observe this every day.

Gone are the days when young families were only too happy to see their parents depart for Florida, only to be called up at Thanksgiving and Christmas -- gone are the days when the elderly waited in vain for a call from their offspring.

The young seek out the old -- but neither the boomers nor, God forbid, the busters, who showered their children with material goods but all too often starved their souls. No, they race to the ones who had known hardship and now have a tale worth emulating to tell.

But why?

"Real integrity," said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, president of the New York-based Institute on Religion and Public Life, when asked about the "pope thing."

"For the last 50 or 60 years this extraordinary Pole has been successful in giving young people the same line in a thousand different ways: "Settle for nothing less than moral and spiritual greatness."


They surround him for a rare treasure, according to Neuhaus, a Catholic priest, and this treasure is the consistency with which he is living out his Christian discipleship.

This faithfulness to discipleship becomes evident to hundreds of millions around the world who watch him descend in agony from the plane that took him halfway around the world, while other men his age shuffle contentedly around the park.

This appeals to the 13- to 18-year-old teenagers pollster George Barna calls the Mosaics because of their eclectic, non-linear way of thinking, to these young people he describes as "a massive and fertile field for evangelization and discipleship."

Thus there is nothing specifically "Roman" about this youthful surge toward the very mature. Joe Davis is observing the same trend among the listeners of Salem's 82 radio stations or the 1,600 affiliates receiving its service.

When older men such as James Dobson ("Focus on the Family") or pastors such as Chuck Swindoll of Dallas or Charles Stanley are on the air, there is a massive response from the kids who clog Salem's electronic addresses with e-mail.

This trend has no denominational barriers, insists Presbyterian Mark Yaconelli, co-director of San Francisco Theological Seminary's Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project. "The kids keep saying, 'Show me.' And by that they mean, 'Show me that you have a spiritual life worth passing on.'"


Thus the Mosaics, often catechetical illiterates, are ready for evangelization, said Walter Wilson, who gently guides the young seekers he finds in cyberspace not toward himself or some invisible electronic church -- but to their neighborhood congregation.

When spiritually hungry youngsters rally around the generation of their grandparents or even great-grand-parents, what does this say about the teenagers' parents, though? Yaconelli scorns them as a lost generation.

"Not only do grownups fail to conduct their lives in a way commensurate with their stated convictions, they also don't talk with their children about their spiritual concerns."

But these spiritual concerns are huge, agrees Barna, whose research shows that 66 percent of the Mosaics consider a close relationship with God very desirable -- significantly more desirable than having a high-paying job or a satisfying sex life.

All this amounts to no less than a stunning turnaround. What blithering fools left-wing materialists were when they presumed to be the antidote to crass and greedy materialism in the West!

Now we know the real antidote: men of faith like the pope, like Wilson, Dobson, Swindoll, Stanley, Billy Graham -- and millions of spiritually starved kids screaming, "Please, show us."


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