All last week in Toronto, I shared sidewalk, streetcar and subway space with the kerchiefed young assembled here, from every part of the world, for the Mass at which the Holy Father presided at Downsview on 28 July 2002.
I have spent my life trying to read faces. I look at faces wherever I walk, and I have walked through so many cities. The human face - the eyes, and also the hands - are the portals of the human soul. They communicate, both to friends, and to strangers. We would not even need language, were we not so close to blind; and in another world, we may see each other directly.
"By the age of 50, everyone has the face he deserves," George Orwell noted. Even by the age of five, a face can give its owner away.
I was amazed by all these young, faithful, Catholic faces, including the Canadians, mostly from out of town, who mixed in with the foreigners as fellow pilgrims.
I have seldom seen together so many decent-looking young faces - not angry, not cynical, not posturing, not smart-alec, not basically unhappy. A general absence of rings and warpaint, but not of that wonderful flush, that rouge, which belongs in the faces of the young and old, that naturally infectious joy in being. Girls and boys mixed together, greeting each other respectfully. When did I last see that among the young? (Especially in Toronto, where, according to my friend Scott Symons, "There is no blood left to be shed in the battle of the sexes".)
A friend met on the subway by chance found these kids all too irritating. "It's a cult, they've all been brainwashed," he said.
My congratulations to the parents of all these kids, for finding a way to brainwash them in the presence of a million others, and the peer pressure that would have set them straight. Not all of my generation failed; not entirely.
I'm an Anglican myself, but hurrah for the Catholics!
They came here because they are Catholics and this is their Pope. They came because he is not merely Pope, but an extraordinary man, a real man, in a world of straw men, victims and cowards.
In a characteristically astute column carried by UPI, the Lutheran writer Uwe Siemon-Netto explained the phenomenon of John Paul II; how he appeals more to the young than to many of their parents:
"Why are they not put off by the fact that he is barely audible and keeps dabbing spittle from his mouth? Why do they flock to him rather than to 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."
(I know. Many readers may now be smirking at the thought of priestly sex scandals: most of them probably unaware that what the priests are rightly being nailed for has been happening in every other walk of life.)
The young today are, to a remarkable degree, looking beyond their parents for guidance, for their "role models" - looking beyond that failed and lost generation of which I am a member. Reaching past their parents to what remains of their grandparents and to the other old, to get some hint of how to live.
It is hard for most of my generation to imagine what could possibly possess a person to put on a kerchief and join the "papal youth." We, after all, took off our clothes to frolic in the mud of Woodstock; and being religious was so uncool. ("Reality is for people who can't handle drugs.") And the generation after, which signed itself with an "X", didn't even touch the Earth at Woodstock.
It is left to the present crop of kids to resume the climb, or continue the descent. So many are looking for handholds above them. Few have anything like the equipment that would normally be needed for the climb. Few were raised in the principles and doctrines, the habits of body and mind that once held Christian society together.
And yet the first thing to know about these kids - the ones whose faces I was watching in Toronto - is that they are not bitter. This is elemental in their hope - they are seekers, not accusers. So many are hungry and want to be filled; feel that craving not only for love, but to love and be worthy of love; to stand on their feet and say the word: "forever."
In the Pope they see a mysterious strength - a strength that is drawn from hidden quarters. They see in his body the conquest of pain, and in his eyes a light through death. Here is a man who is not a fake, who is genuinely holy. They see the father that many never had, and through him sense our Father in heaven.
What a mistake it would have been, if this Holy Father had cheapened the Church, by trying to "change with the times" by ordaining women, accepting birth control, allowing homosexual marriage, gutting the liturgy, appointing 'hip' bishops - the whole gamut of my generation's minimum demands. Such experiments have been tried in most of the other mainstream churches; they have helped to empty them.
The young want something more than convenience from their Church - or moral support for immoral behaviour. They don't want to sever the roots that are sunk down through the ages, they want to touch the living oak.
In the words of Christ, "One cannot have two masters." We may well fall into sin, and frequently do; we can and must forgive others, and even learn to forgive ourselves: "the law of love transcends the commandments." But we cannot change the definition of sin. That is for God; and God changes nothing.
The Pope has told them, as Mother Teresa and other true heroes have told them, that we can't remake the Church to suit the post-modern world. For, after all, it is the post- modern world that isn't going to be around tomorrow.
With acknowledgement to 'Ottawa Citizen'. The article is reprinted with the permission of the author, who is a Canadian journalist and regular columnist with the 'Ottawa Citizen'.