Tuesday, February 15, 2011

And about an old article!

This morning, Audrey Yu, a friend of mine from Malaysia, drew my attention to an article i put together close to 5 years ago. It was 2005, and the world had just witnessed an extraordinary outpouring of grief at the passing away of Pope John Paul II, as well as a conclave that produced Pope Benedict XVI.
While these events were unfolding, i was tucked away in my in my little home town of Njoro, in the Rift Valley, preparing myself and a few of my mates for what would be our first ever trip to Europe for the World Youth Days in Cologne, Germany. These were the perfect ingredients for the production of the article, that Audrey reminded me about this morning.
In the backdrop of the news that Servant of God JP II will be beatified in May this year, and considering that i compiled the article way before i discovered blogging, i now share the article here. Thank you Audrey for bringing the article back to life!

“When you meet young people, you become young yourself. So today you are meeting a young Pope.” And the young people applauded; to words you would rarely hear from an 80-year-old. Yet these were the words of Pope John Paul II when he hosted more than 2 million youth in the sweltering summer heat of Rome, in the Holy Year 2000.

From Brazil to Benin, Australia to America, John Paul II left an overwhelming impression on the young people of the world. Indeed, very early in his pontificate, John Paul II already had an agenda for the young people. In his premier encyclical, ‘Redemptor hominis’ (March 4,1979), he buoyed the youth to shoulder their responsibility in the Church and in society. Yet his contacts with the youth and the concern he had for them in his heart did not begin when he was elected Pope. It started long before he assumed the Petrine office; as a priest, bishop and cardinal.

You have probably already read numerous biographies on John Paul II that were carried in the media during the events surrounding his death. And i wish to refrain from turning this piece into one more memoir. But it would be insularity to delve into the relations between John Paul II and the youth, without retracing the life of this noble man in his youth.

The young Karol Wojtyla was affectionately nicknamed ‘Lolek’ by his family. Six year old Lolek joined elementary school in the autumn of 1926 and admitted to middle school, Marcin Wadowita, in 1930. Having already lost his mother, Emilia Kaczorowska, in 1929, and his elder brother Edmund in 1932, Lolek remained alone with his father and naturally grew very close. Old neighbours would later muse over the Wojtylas, father and son walking hand in hand to the restaurant near their home for a meal, or for a stroll.

Lolek became especially interested in literature and in the Polish language as well as in Greek and Latin classics and modern philosophical works, which he studied under the meticulous guidance of his father. Swimming, skiing, soccer and hockey were Lolek’s favourite sports, and like any other student, he enjoyed his holidays!

A dedicated Mass server, Lolek assisted his pastor, Fr. Edward Zacher, each morning before he started his school day. Two weeks to his eighteenth birthday, Lolek graduated from High School with excellent grades in conduct, religion, Latin, Greek, German, Math, Philosophy, Physical Education, the Polish language and literature. He received the sacrament of confirmation during the same month.

The theatre had a great influence on Lolek’s persona. A multitalented actor, Lolek once had to take on two roles in the same comedy when a colleague failed to show up; and he played them both quite effortlessly- he had the entire script on his fingertips-from first page to last. He was completely riveted by a passion for literature, especially dramatic literature, and for the theatre.

In the summer of the same year Lolek and his father moved from Wadowice to Krakow where they lived with his mother’s relatives. Then he began his studies in the Faculty of Philosophy at the Jagiellonian University, taking courses in Polish language and letters-courses that prepared him for an encounter with Philosophy and theology. On November 6th 1939, German authorities rounded up all the teachers in a meeting, which culminated in their deportation to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp-bringing to an end Lolek’s Polish language studies. The German occupation had commenced.

Lolek became a labourer in a stone quarry attached to the Solvay chemical plant, in the autumn of 1940 in order to avoid deportation. On one occasion Lolek witnessed the death of a worker who was struck by rocks during the detonation of a dynamite charge. An experience that left an overpowering effect on him. The first seeds of his priestly vocation were also sowed during his tenure at the quarry. Franciszek Labuc, a rock-blaster to whom Lolek was an assistant, occasionally said things like “ Karol, you should be a priest. You have a good voice and will sing well; then you’ll be all set…” Words that stuck in Lolek’s memory.

Lolek lost his father in 1941, an event which brought a great sense of solitude to Lolek’s life-and he began to think seriously about how to give meaning to this solitude. For the whole of that year Lolek continued to work in the quarry, while participating in an underground theatre group known as ‘Theatre of the Living Word’, under the tutelage of Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk, a professor of Polish literature-who was also Lolek’s host, friend and teacher. It was not until the autumn of 1942 that Lolek made his final decision to enter the Krakow seminary, having been accepted by the Rector, Father Jan Piwowarczyk.

November 1st 1946, and Karol Wojtyla is ordained priest. Fast forward to 1949 and Father Karol is at Saint Florian parish in Krakow, where he is entrusted with teaching catechism to the senior classes of the secondary school and providing pastoral care to university students. Here, Father Karol gave talks to young people every Thursday about fundamental problems on the question of the existence of God- an extremely important issue viewed against the backdrop of militant atheism being promoted by the communist regime at the time. A foundation for his relationship with the youth was being set.

Father Karol spent his vacations with young people in the mountains or in semi-clandestine summer schools, which were outlawed by the communist establishment. He substituted the cassock for civilian clothes so as not to arouse suspicion and photographs show him seated on the grass hanging out with young people or playing with the children of married couples. When Pope Pius XII named the 38-year-old Father Karol auxiliary bishop of Krakow, he was out camping with a group of young people. He hurried back to town, accepted the appointment immediately and asked permission to return to his group! Clearly he was among friends.

“We love you Pope Lolek!”

“Lolek is a name for a baby, but I am an old man…”

“No! No!”
“…But John Paul is too serious. Call me Karol.”

The above exchange took place between John Paul II and young people in Manila, on January 14th 1995. They began chanting: ”John Paul II! We kiss you!” And he replied: “And I kiss you too, all of you! No jealousy!”

Why did young people fall in love with Pope John Paul II? What is it that they saw in him? Was it something he offered? Perhaps something they could not resist…so that they kept coming back? Responding to his invitations in droves?

John Paul II was quite spontaneous with the young people. This spontaneity was epitomized in the World Youth Days, an event he initiated in 1984, when he invited youth from all over the world to Rome, for an International Jubilee of Youth on Palm Sunday in St. Peter’s square. Three hundred thousand responded. In the coliseum young people completed the Stations of the Cross, while in St. Peter’s Cathedral the Eucharist was celebrated. On the evening before Palm Sunday, the Pope exclaimed out to the young people: “What a fantastic spectacle is presented on this stage by your gathering here today! Who claimed that today’s youth has lost their sense of values? Is it really true that they cannot be counted on?” And John Paul II entrusted to the world’s youth a symbol: a colossal wooden crucifix, later to be known as the World Youth Day Cross.

Questioning the contention that young people can no longer be counted on, the Pope now personally decided to make this meeting more than just a one-off occasion. In his Easter message, ‘Urbi et Orbi’ on 7th April 1985, he said: “Last Sunday I met hundreds of thousands of young people; the festive sight of their enthusiasm made a deep impression in my soul. Wishing that this wonderful experience be repeated in the coming years and that an International Palm Sunday meeting of youth therefore be initiated, I reaffirm my conviction…” On December 20th, he told the College of Cardinals: “The Lord has given his special blessings to this gathering (on Palm Sunday), so in the coming years, a celebration of the World Day of Youth shall be held on Palm Sundays in collaboration with the Council for the Laity.” And the World Youth Days were established. John Paul II was later to say, “ No one invented the World Youth Days. It was the young people themselves who created them. Those days, those encounters, then became something desired by young people throughout the world. Most of the time, these days were something of a surprise for priests, and even bishops, in that they surpassed all their expectations.”

When plans for the first World Youth Day were announced, cynics envisaged that perchance twenty young people would be willing to profess their faith in public by attending. The bewilderment exploded to colossal magnitudes as over one million youth came out to greet the Holy Father. The city was Buenos Aires-1987-the first actual World Youth Day.

Of all the attempts to explain this phenomenon, perhaps among the best would be that of Eugene Ionesco, a Romanian academic in France: “For a long time, no one spoke anymore of God or of love. Everyone thought that it would make people laugh in derision. But now the crowds have come to listen and they do not laugh.” Giuseppe Prezzioni acquiesces with Eugene’s observation: “The reason is that they hear in his words something that transcends everything else.

Among many other reasons that endeared John Paul II to the young, his guilelessness and authenticity indubitably stand out. He never watered down the message of Christ so it would be more alluring; more palatable-rather he spoke out the truth plainly and candidly-no fancy wrapping-whether it was about abortion, premarital sex amongst a myriad of other contemporary problems; and the youth seemed to like that. The pope himself stated it in this way: “The one being sought out is Christ, who knows that which is in every man (cf. Jn 2:25)…and who can give true answers to his questions! And even if they are demanding answers, the young are not afraid of them; more to the point, they even await them.”

In this statement it is unproblematic to discern the belief, the confidence that John Paul II had in the youth. He delighted in their company and willingly listened to what they had to say. The youth recognized this; they knew John Paul II was not exaggerating when he told them that he always learnt something from them.

Consequently, when Andre Frossard told him in Paris: “Your Holiness, I think you could lead the young people wherever you want”, the Pope countered,” On the contrary; it is they who lead me!”
In his book, ‘Crossing the Threshold of Hope’, John Paul says, ”New generations clearly seem to be accepting with enthusiasm what their elders seem to have rejected. What does this mean? It means that Christ is forever young.”

“We need the enthusiasm of the young. We need their joie de vivre. In it is reflected something of the original joy that God had in creating man.” In those words he illustrated and put prominence on the proper role the youth have top play in the Church. The Pope devoted a chapter in his apostolic letter on the laity ‘Christifideles Laici (30 December 1988); “The Church has so much to talk about with youth, and youth have so much to share with the Church.” This was perhaps the most graphic proclamation defining the place of young people in a Post Vatican Council two eon. An affiliation that is clearly mutual and embracing dialogue-not the Church becoming an authority that jostles down the throats of the youth the message of Christ; rather a caring guardian that tells the truth in its entirety. And as if to hush the skeptics further, he repeated these sentiments on a visit to St. Louis, USA in 1999,”Remember: Christ is calling you; the Church needs you; the Pope believes in you and he expects great things of you!”

John Paul’s approbation for the joie de vivre of the young seemed to redouble with his advancing years. He confessed at Catania, Sicily, in 1994,”Young people always rejuvenate me”, and the following day at Siracusa, Sicily, he said; “I am always happy to meet with young people; I don’t know why but I am!” He did not let his age cut back on his encounters with youth. In 1996, at one of the parishes in Rome he said, “With all the years that I am carrying, I feel young!”
At another Roman parish in 1997-“Do you have money in your pockets to return home? I am also among those who would like to return- to my youth!”

Pope John Paul also believed that beneath the youths’ apparent indifference there is within every one of them a fierce religious yearning, and young people best exemplify this; a conviction he articulated in Denver, USA in 1993 when he said, “ Do not stifle your conscience. The conscience is our real heart and shrine, where we are alone with God…Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places…This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel…Do not be afraid to break out of the comfortable and routine modes of living and to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern ‘metropolis’”.

Now then, in all of the 104 trips John Paul II made throughout the world, he always asked to meet with young people. But it was the World Youth Days that would without a doubt become the success story; a story that would enthrall the world as it surged forward so gloriously.

And the young people turned out massively to pay their last respects at his demise. It is estimated that more than half of the gargantuan crowds that crammed Rome was composed of young people. The 20th World Youth Day flag scheduled to be held in Cologne could be seen soaring high in the multitudes. A sincere and fervent homage to a man they had come to be fond of.

Future World Youth Days will honor the Pope. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI in his first homily in the Sistine Chapel a day after his election, said he will be ‘greatly honored’ to preside at the 20th World Youth Day in Cologne in August, “for the youth were close to John Paul’s heart”.
Fascinatingly, one of the first assignments that Pope Benedict XVI will take on outside the Vatican, will be the 20th World Youth Day-in his own native country-Germany.

I asked a buddy in Malaysia what the reaction to the election of Pope Benedict XVI was. “The young people are celebrating, and the old people keep asking why the Pope is so old!”
They better be wary! Because Pope Benedict XVI will become young this summer-since as John Paul II said, “When you meet young people, you become young yourself.” He was 80 years old then. Benedict XVI is just 78!

By Allen Ottaro.

X        A. Frossard. “Be Not Afraid (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984).
X        E. Cavaterra. Il Papa dell’uomo nuovo. (Rome: Dino Editori, 1981).
X        John Paul II with Vittorio Messori. Crossing the Threshold of Hope. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).
X        Luigi Accattoli (Translated by Jordan Aumann, OP). Man of the Millenium (Boston: Daughter’s of St. Paul, 2000).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Of coincidence and more!

I have always enjoyed reading pieces especially on contemporary issues and other concerns of our times. That could be part of what triggered my interest in blogging. Towards the end of last year, i received an invitation from Ms.Uta Sievers, the communications officer at the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in Rome, to contribute an article for the Secretariat's quarterly journal, 'Promotio Iustitiae'.
The article titled 'Degradation of the earth and the poor:the facts', is my first ever article to be published in a journal,let alone one of international repute and stature as Promotio Iustitiae. Naturally i am very excited, knowing that quite a few people that i will most likely never meet in person, are interacting with me through the article. (Link to the article:http://sjweb.info/sjs/pjnew/PJShow.cfm?pubTextID=9983

It was quite interesting to read the editorial. It turns out that this was the last issue(30th, while it also turns out that this is my 30th blogpost!!) to be edited by Fernando Franco, who has been at the helm as editor for seven and a half years. No mean feat! Now Fernando had taken over from Michael Czerny, who had been appointed director of the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN) based in Nairobi, Kenya, and where i have been working for the past year and a half. At the time of my writing the article, Michael had moved back to Rome in a different role as personal assistant to Cardinal Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
A year and half ago, friends of mine from Poland 'baptised' me 'Kazimierz' the name of a famous Polish King. I quickly adopted the name on my facebook profile, and it also turned up on the article!
Coincidence or just life playing itself out?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Tahrir? Who would have thought!!

Its only the 13th day of February, 2011. But with the events that have characterized the year so far, especially in the Maghreb, it feels like we have lived through a longer period of the year.
I found two things that in my own estimation aptly express what has and is still happening in Egypt and Tunisia thus far. The first, a youtube video with images from Tahrir square and the second a poem by Stephen Partington, and i share these with you:

Just because the Pharaohs forced
Their slaves to build the pyramids,
It doesn’t mean that presidents
May tyrannise a populace!
A brave man sets himself on fire
And soon the whole Maghreb’s alight,
And aged rulers hide themselves
Or flee their states in gutless flight.
Ben Ali of Tunisia
Absconded to Arabia
When countless of his countrymen
Objected to his mania.
Now thousands of Egyptians have
Protested down the Cairo streets
With placards, courage, hope and might,
Insisting that Mubarak leaves.
It’s clear that guns and riot shields
Soon melt before a peaceful crowd;
What’s happened in North Africa
Should make the wider continent proud.
Who knows if these fresh Winds of Change
Will blow east, to Arabia,
Or if this Nile of Promise will
Flow southwards, up to Africa?

A wonderful  Sunday to you all!