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“Ask a Priest: Did John Paul II Really Change Young People?”
Q: I have recently read an article in which the Vatican’s chief exorcist, the late Father Gabriele Amorth, said to an interviewer that during one of his exorcisms he asked the devil to reveal to him whom he feared and despised most. In reply, the devil said: the Blessed Virgin Mary and Pope St. John Paul II. The reason that the devil gave for identifying the Pope was that he shattered his plans by being the catalyst in the collapse of Communism and by turning many young people back to the Church. However, I have a problem in grasping the second reason for the devil’s loathing of John Paul II: that he inspired many young people to turn back to the Church. I regularly surf American Catholic websites that usually present a very bleak picture of the state of the Catholic Church in the U.S.A.: surveys and researches that indicate a mass falling away of young people from the Church; of the relentless rise of “nones”; the ever-diminishing number of especially young Americans affiliated to any religion or denomination; and the relentless and seemingly unstoppable march of the sexual revolution and the culture of death. According to one article that I cannot now recall, it is reckoned that for every one American that converts to Catholicism, seven fall away. The situation in England, where I live, is no better: I see no sign of young people turning back to the Church. Am I overlooking something that might indicate that Father Amorth was right about John Paul II’s legacy in attracting young people to the Church? – P.S.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A. I agree that the statistics and other indicators for young people are not encouraging. Father Amorth’s comments need to be put in context.
By the late 1970s the Church in the West was weakening, its voice fading in the public arena. Pope John Paul II burst onto the scene and gave the Church a much stronger voice, and the World Youth Days he launched (among other things) did indeed generate a lot of interest in young people.
Perhaps many of those young people would have been lost had it not been for John Paul II’s reinvigoration of the papacy. His popularity with young people was noticeable throughout his papacy. This helped bolster numerous initiatives, including campus ministries and ecclesial movements as well as scholarly interest in fields such as theology of the body. A number of young congregations enjoyed a growth in vocations.
Now, around 2007 something appeared on the scene that was a game-changer: the smart phone. Without any desire to oversimplify things, I’d say that we have seen a revolution of sorts since 2007 — in the way people communicate, in the way they learn of the world, in the very way they view reality. Too often the devices have been used to put pornography in the palm. The fallout has been devastating for marriages and families.
Couple that with the rise of social media, and the result is that the faith of young people has been hard hit. They are surrounded by secular messages, indeed a pagan worldview, and these have had an enormous impact. A lot of this came after John Paul II’s time.
It is a new world, and thus a new approach to evangelization is needed. John Paul II did a lot in his time to change things for the better; even now his corpus of writing and his very example of life are benefiting countless numbers of people. In this sense Father Amorth’s comments remain valid.
Now the task is for us — you, me, the Pope, the clergy, all the laity — to do our part to evangelize the young people around us today.
None of this takes away from the great work of John Paul II. It is just that the work he undertook is ongoing.
Learn more about St. John Paul II in the Retreat Guide “Be Not Afraid: A Retreat Guide on St. John Paul II”