The first thing you notice about Tony Melendez is not that he has no arms. Knowing I was going to meet him, I confess experiencing that same feeling I had the first time I consciously went to meet wounded warriors. What could I possibly say? How do I even greet them? It was also the predicament I found myself in the day I met Pope Benedict XVI briefly and realized I had more than my practiced line to deliver. It turned out that the Holy Father actually wanted to have a conversation with me. An actual human encounter!
So the first thing you do notice when you meet Tony Melendez, a musician who appears to have been born to perform at World Youth Day events, is that he is a man more in touch with humanity than most of us. There’s no pretension about him. There’s no shield or sword. He’s son of our Heavenly Father with gratitude and love overflowing.
You see that in the bonds between him and his brother, Jose; his wife, Lynne, and sister-in-law, Anna. You see it in the roles he plays in the lives of young men and women: father, uncle and brother. You see it in the love he has for the Church and how he wants to bring people to Christ. He does that through his music — and as he plays the guitar with his feet, it’s almost impossible not to be drawn to his servant’s heart.
Tony Melendez’s first World Youth Day was in Czestochowa, Poland, in 1991. So this year in Krakow was something of a homecoming for him. He first got roped into World Youth Day after he played for Pope St. John Paul II in Los Angeles in September 1987. At the time, the Holy Father said: “Tony, you are truly a courageous young man. … My wish [to you] is to continue giving this hope to all other people.”
And so he does, while quite self-aware that, at 54, he is not the key World Youth Day demographic, and that at the moment God calls him to step away from the stage, he is ready and willing. At his 11th World Youth Day, he remains faithful.
It only takes a moment to see why his mission remains. Most of the young people here know Pope John Paul II as a historic fact. Melendez, embodying the message of hope in Jesus Christ that radiates from World Youth Day, seems to serve as a bridge to this canonized saint and hero of our own contemporary history. As he did in 1987, he sings about how we will never be the same. That’s the prayer of every Mass and of every exhausting and exhilarating World Youth Day pilgrimage event, which involves sacrifice, self-giving and an incredible capacity for receiving.
The “beautiful site” of the “strength of numbers coming together” is “overwhelming,” Melendez says. “I see it in my eyes, my heart. The hairs on my body stand because it’s just moving, very moving.” As I cynically think that World Youth Day won’t make the front page outside Poland and Catholic newspapers, he’s keeping himself young by drinking in the awesome sight of young people worshipping God and drawing deeper into the life of the Trinity, at all different stages of the spiritual life.
A visit to Krakow doesn’t seem complete without a visit to the sanctuary of John Paul II, which, in a side chapel, houses the blood-stained cassock from the day when he was shot in St. Peter’s Square. Angelic choirs seem to sing there of courage. And that’s what Tony Melendez sings of and witnesses to. Courage to move forward, whatever the odds. But also the courage not to be a victim, instead to rejoice in the love of a creator who does not make mistakes and works with everything that is broken — namely us — to bring peace to human hearts and to the world.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online and co-author of “How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice” (OSV, $17.95).