On his joyous final day in New York, Pope John Paul II challenged a dancing, chanting young audience in Central Park to shape the character of the next millennium - and he let them know that he trusts them with that enormous task.
The day included a popemobile tour around St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a recitation of the rosary inside the packed cathedral, an unexpected stroll on 50th Street back to Cardinal John O’Connor’s residence, and, later, meetings with Christian and Jewish leaders.
The emotional high point of the day was the Mass in Central Park, where the presence of so many youths helped make his tone more that of the loving teacher than the stern prophet of some other speeches. He asked them to change the world, encouraging them with a central theme of his whole papacy: “Do not be afraid!”
John Paul dubbed it “a mini-World Youth Day,” like the one that drew 500,000 people to Denver in 1993. This crowd was not that large - police estimated it at 125,000. But it showed the same enthusiasm, repeatedly chanting “John Paul II, we love you,” and “Juan Pablo Segundo, te quiere todo el mundo” - a reminder of the city’s ethnic diversity.
As always, young people brought out an energy and a papal playfulness in John Paul. As a young priest, he was a popular professor at the Catholic University in Lublin, Poland, earning the affectionate title of “Uncle.”
In the drizzle and the mud of Central Park, he asked his young “students” Saturday to take the next millennium in their hands.
His homily included specific prescriptions, to meet the needs of “the poor, the hungry, the homeless, those who are alone or ill; for example, those suffering from AIDS,” and to focus on life issues.
“You are called to respect and defend the mystery of life always and everywhere, including the lives of unborn babies, giving real help and encouragement to mothers in difficult situations,” John Paul said.
“You are called to work and pray against abortion, against violence of all kinds, including the violence done against women’s and children’s dignity through pornography. Stand up for the life of the aged and the handicapped, against attempts to promote assisted suicide and euthanasia! Stand up for marriage and family life! Stand up for purity!”
Beyond that familiar litany, the pope offered them a broader challenge. “You young people will live most of your lives in the next millennium,” John Paul said. “You must help the Holy Spirit to shape its social, moral and spiritual character … The pope asks all of you to do this. He knows that you will do this, and for this he loves you. Then you can tell the whole world that you gave the pope his Christmas present already in October, in New York, in Central Park. Do not be afraid! The power of the Holy Spirit is with you!”
At that moment, the crowd broke into an impromptu first verse of “Silent Night.”
Earlier, the pope had charmed the crowd by singing a few verses of a Polish Christmas carol similar to it.
People began arriving at the park before dawn, streaming off the subways wearing ponchos and jackets. Those with tickets to the Great Lawn got to hear stellar warm-up acts, including Roberta Flack, Natalie Cole and Jon Secada.
Today, the pope travels to Baltimore, where he is scheduled to celebrate Mass at Camden Yards baseball stadium and meet with the homeless at a soup kitchen.