Sunday, October 26, 2003

The Bartimaeuses of John Paul II

Jesus Cures Bartimaeus

(Thirtieth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 26, 2003 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 10: 46-52.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirtieth Sunday 2003]

Here’s a legitimate “Trivial Pursuit” question:

Who is the only 83-year-old man who can outdo any rock or rap star when it comes to drawing a crowd of young people?

The answer, of course, is “Pope John Paul II”; and for proof of that, just look at the films of any past World Youth Day. They come from all over the planet just to be in his presence! And they listen to what he says, even if they sometimes struggle to be faithful to his words.

Why? Why is this man so appealing to youth?

It certainly isn’t because of his flashy appearance (since his appearance—especially now—is anything but flashy). It’s not because he uses pyrotechnics or some other clever gimmick to get their attention; the man has no gimmicks. And it’s certainly not because he tells them what they want to hear, because he doesn’t. If anything, he tells most people what they don’t want to hear!

So, what’s the attraction?

Let me offer you this morning my theory on the matter, and let me express it to you by means of a verse found in this Gospel text we just heard from Mark 10.

Jesus, we are told, was on his way out of the town of Jericho one day, when a blind man named Bartimaeus began calling out to him, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me. And the sightless man was persistent!—he refused to stop, even when some people in the crowd told him to be quiet. Finally, our Lord asked them to call Bartimaeus over. What happened next is described by St. Mark with these words: “So they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.’”

Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.

“Take courage”—it reminds me of the very first address John Paul II gave to the world as pope. Do you remember it? On October 16, 1978, when he appeared on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s square right after being elected the successor of St. Peter, he said to all of us—young and not-so-young—“Be not afraid.”

This command, coupled with the final words of the verse I just quoted from Mark 10, encapsulate the Holy Father’s consistent message to the youth of the world over the last quarter century:

“Be not afraid, young people. Get up, Jesus is calling you! He’s your creator; he’s your redeemer; he has a plan for your lives. Give yourselves to him; give yourselves to others out of love for him, and discover the truth that will set you free—the truth that will guide you through this earthly existence and into God’s eternal kingdom.”

No wonder so many of our youth love this pope! That’s a message of profound hope, which is rooted in truth—consequently it’s a message they don’t hear too often. They currently live in the midst of the culture of death, where even the most innocent (the unborn, the sick, the elderly) are sometimes treated like disposable objects. They live in a society where they’re taught through music and the arts to abuse their bodies with sex, drugs and alcohol. They live in a culture of broken promises, broken relationships—a culture where fear, not faith, rules the majority: the fear of not having enough; the fear of not being pretty enough or popular enough or successful enough; the fear of being a nobody.

The Holy Father’s message to the youth of the world is radical and counter-cultural, as well as deeply challenging. It’s the pure, unadulterated Gospel of Jesus Christ.

You might think that this message would be much too hard, and the messenger much too old. And yet, young people consistently applaud the Holy Father’s words with youthful enthusiasm—and clamor for more!

I believe the reason for their positive response is twofold. First of all, young people can sense this pope’s holiness and are greatly attracted to it, even if they don’t fully understand it. They know that he says what he means and means what he says! They know he’s not a political double-talker. They know he’s not a phony. If he were, you can be sure that they would tune him out immediately—because young people hate phonies!

But there’s another reason why this man connects with youth so effectively: it’s because he’s someone to whom they can easily relate. They know, for example, that he’s suffered, as so many of them are suffering through the awkward years of adolescence and young adulthood. They see the Holy Father suffering as he struggles to deal with Parkinson’s Disease and a host of other ailments; they know from reading history books that he was shot back in 1981. And many of them have also learned that his childhood was literally filled with crosses: his mother died when he was in the third grade; his only brother, a young medical doctor, died a few years later of scarlet fever; and his father—to whom he was deeply devoted—died suddenly and tragically when the future pope was only 20.

That’s not to mention the many sufferings he experienced for decades living under Nazism and Communism.

And yet, when they look at the Holy Father today, these young people see a man who still smiles, who still has faith, who still loves, who still cares. That inspires them—as it rightly should! That should inspire all of us!

And so, when the pope tells them, “Be not afraid; go to Jesus, he’s calling you,” they know he’s speaking from personal experience. What he’s telling them to do, he’s already done—for years and years and years.

Young people also identify with the Holy Father on other levels. He loves sports, for example, as so many of them do (he was once an excellent skier and mountain climber). He has a great appreciation for music and the arts (he even did some acting in the years before he became a priest). He has a deep reverence for marriage and family life, even though he joyfully embraces a life of consecrated celibacy. Some of his closest friends in his early days as a priest were married couples. The practical insights he received from dialoguing with them, have influenced his university teaching, his writing, and the addresses he’s given to young people over the years (at the World Youth Days and in other settings).

Yes, it’s true, our present pope is well into his 80’s—but he’s definitely young at heart.

“Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.” When Bartimaeus heeded those words in today’s Gospel story, he was not only healed of his physical blindness. Even more importantly (as St. Mark tells us), he began to follow Jesus—and live a new life.

And that’s the way it’s been for all the youth of the world who have wisely heeded the Holy Father’s message to them over the last 25 years. They have been healed of their spiritual blindness, and have begun to walk with Christ. They have come to recognize the lies of the world and the timeless truths of the Gospel. They’ve discovered the pearl of great price and the road less traveled: the road that will lead them to eternal life with Christ, if they continue to follow it with persevering faith.

You might call these youth “The Bartimaeuses of John Paul II.” It’s my prayer that all the young people here this morning will make the decision to become members of this very special—and, thankfully, very large—group.