By Mary DeTurris Poust
YONKERS, N.Y. — Pope Benedict XVI was like a proud and encouraging grandfather when he spoke to some 20,000 young people and hundreds of seminarians at a youth rally at St. Joseph’s Seminary Saturday. He offered words of support, shared stories of his own childhood under a “sinister regime,” and urged the enthusiastic youths to make something special of their lives, to give back to God and others, and to be wary of a world that looks for easy answers and judges success on material terms.
“As young Americans you are offered many opportunities for personal development, and you are brought up with a sense of generosity, service and fairness. Yet you do not need me to tell you that there are also difficulties: activities and mind-sets which stifle hope; pathways which seem to lead to happiness and fulfillment, but in fact end only in confusion and fear,” the pope told the crowd gathered under a blazing sun that made the mid-April day feel more like July.
The pope went on to tell the youths about his own teenage years growing up in Nazi Germany, saying they were “marred by a sinister regime that thought it had all the answers” and ultimately banished God, making it “impervious to anything good and true.”
He warned that even in a land where people live in freedom, the “power to destroy” remains. He said that repression and manipulation lead to a loss of hope and shattered dreams that can result in substance abuse, homelessness, poverty, racism, violence and degradation, especially of girls and women.
“While the causes of problems are complex, all have in common a poisoned attitude of mind which results in people being treated as mere objects — a callousness of heart takes hold which first ignores, then ridicules, the God-given dignity of every human being,” he said.
The pope even took on the heavy topic of relativism with his young audience, calling it a “second area of darkness” that affects the mind and often goes unnoticed, distorting the truth and giving value to all things indiscriminately.
“How many young people have been offered a hand which in the name of freedom or experience has led them to addiction, to moral or intellectual confusion, to hurt, to a loss of self-respect, even to despair and, so tragically and sadly, to the taking of their own life?”
Repeatedly in his address, which was punctuated with spontaneous chanting of “Benedetto” and furious flag-waving by the crowd, the pope told the young people to look to the saints as examples of how ordinary people can live extraordinary lives of faith and walk the path of discipleship. Specifically he referred to six men and women — some already saints, some blessed or venerable — whose commitment to the Gospel made a significant difference for others, specifically in the state of New York: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, St. John Neumann, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, Venerable Pierre Toussaint and Padre Felix Varela.
He encouraged the young people to fix their gaze on the saints and have courage, especially in times of doubt, saying the “diversity of their experience of God prompts us to discover anew the breadth and depth of Christianity.”
“Let your imaginations soar freely along the limitless expanse of the horizon of Christian discipleship. Sometimes we are looked upon as people who speak only of prohibitions. Nothing could be further from the truth! Authentic Christian discipleship is marked by a sense of wonder,” he said. “We stand before the God we know and love as a friend, the vastness of creation, and the beauty of our Christian faith.”
Offering a road map for discipleship, he told the youths that there are four “essential aspects of faith: personal prayer and silence, liturgical prayer, charity in action, and vocations.
The youth rally, which drew so many seminarians, priests and religious brothers and sisters to the grounds of Dunwoodie — as the seminary is commonly known by locals in deference to its Yonkers neighborhood — also provided the pontiff with an opportunity to talk about vocations to a group of young people still trying to figure out what they do as they mature into adults.
He encouraged the seminarians, saying that he is happy to hear their numbers are increasing, and he urged them to talk “heart to heart” with Jesus and to “reject any temptation to ostentation, careerism or conceit.”
This was not the pope’s first visit to St. Joseph’s Seminary. In 1988, when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he visited the seminary, which is housed in a granite Renaissance-style building that sits atop 40 acres in Yonkers, a city just a few miles north of New York City.
This time the pope’s visit began at the seminary chapel, where he met with 50 disabled children and their parents and caregivers. Following that brief meeting, he arrived at the main field in the popemobile to cheering throngs that could not get enough of him.
Cardinal Edward Egan of New York introduced the pope, saying that the attractions of the secular world are serious challenges to the spiritual life of all people, but those attractions are “constantly calling young people away from what is holy and wholesome.” They need to hear another voice, he said, the voice of the Vicar of Christ.
The event was punctuated by presentations by children and adults representing various cultures, backgrounds, professions and regions, each of whom was greeted warmly by the pope on the massive stage constructed on the seminary grounds for the event.
Before the pope’s arrival, on the main field, patient pilgrims stood for hours just to buy a hot dog, and yet smiling faces were everywhere. Teenagers and adults, some of whom had traveled from Virginia and Georgia and beyond, were soaking up the atmosphere, and buying papal trinkets in hopes of extending the memories for years to come.
Christian bands and dance troupes performed for hours, capped off by a performance by Kelly Clarkson, a Grammy-winning artist who gained her fame on “American Idol.”
Adam Crowe, a seminarian from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, said that the entire papal visit so far was “absolutely beautiful.” Crowe, who will be ordained May 24, told OSV that the pope offers a “message of hope, something the world needs to hear today.”
On the upper field, Yonkers City Court Judge Mary Anne Scattaretico-Naber of Yonkers said that she brought her sons, Joseph, age 15, and Christian, 13, to the rally in hopes that seeing the pope would help her sons heal after the recent death of their grandmother.
Both boys, students at Fordham Prep in the Bronx, were stretched on a blanket shading themselves with sweatshirts. Their mother said they have been having a hard time coping with the loss.
“I am hoping they will get some inspiration from this,” she said, adding that she has been impressed with the pope during this visit.
“I think it was a good thing that he came out so we can get to know who he is. He had a big act to follow. He’s doing a really nice job,” she said.
Victoria Davidson, 15, of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., left home at 4 a.m. on April 19 with almost 40 other young people from her diocese to be at the youth rally. “I thought it would be really great to be here and to hear the pope talk to the young people of America, she told OSV. “Plus, it’s the pope, and it’s very cool to see the pope.”
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