Morning Watchmen

Author: Cardinal James F. Stafford, President, PCL


Cardinal James F. Stafford, President, Pontifical Council for the Laity


At the conclusion of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, the Holy Father John Paul II gave the Church the gift of the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio ineunte, a precious document that beginning with a profound reflection on the Holy Year just concluded relaunches the Church towards the future, towards the third millennium. We might say that Novo Millennio ineunte is the navigation chart for "putting out into the deep", Duc in altum; it is a pastoral programme, a guide for the Church's journey.

In the Apostolic Letter we find a strong and urgent reference to young people. The Pope invites the young people to be "morning watchmen" at the dawn of the new millennium. In the document the Holy Father makes an analysis, a detailed memorandum of the Jubilee Year and in number nine he takes into particular consideration the Jubilee of Young People. At the beginning of the third millennium we cannot forget that the experience of Tor Vergata was a breath of hope for everyone. It was the largest gathering of people in Europe's history, the largest for the number of its participants but also for its meaning. In referring to it in Novo Millennio ineunte, the Holy Father says "Rome became 'young with the young"' (n. 9). We can also add that the Church became "young with the young". Once again we realized that young people are not only the hope for the future, but are already present and active in the Church. They really are the "morning watchmen" at the dawn of the third millennium.

When the Holy Father launched the idea of World Youth Day, many critical voices were raised, some even hoped that this papal initiative would be a great failure. Many analysts said that the youth were unaware of the post-war shortages and had not known the sufferings of the great wars which destroyed Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Others evoked the phantom of the 1968 protests and post-modern indifferentism that was taking hold of the new generations of the children of television, of rock 'n' roll, of internet and of the sexual revolution. However, when my predecessor, Cardinal Eduardo Pironio, as President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity threw himself into this wonderful initiative that was born from the heart of Pope John Paul II, the results were not long in coming. The response from the young people was great and the Church was enriched by the valid contribution of a generation that many considered lost.

Young people want to be committed to a continuous and complete reconciliation

One could sense a yearning for authenticity, for generosity, a strong desire to be witnesses in the world, to draw attention not to themselves but to certain values that seemed lost, dead. They were young people who live in freedom (cf. John Paul II, Crossing the threshold of hope, ch. 19), who had not experienced the extermination camps or the trenches, but were well aware that these dangers would be lying in wait unless they built a new model of society that was more human and more in harmony with the will of God. The idealism of these young people touched many consciences, it was felt by many governments, it appeared in the streets of many cities that were considered cold and unchangeable. I am thinking, for example, of the "Paris revolution" of 1998, when the young people of the 13th World Youth Day followed the Way of the Cross along the streets of the capital of modernity before the astonished eyes of the passers-by.

The young people of this new millennium are beginning to live more purified from the romantic traditions and rational prejudices, more aware of the limits of human reason and more anxious to build a society of peace that leaves amark in history at any cost. These are the young people who arrived in Tor Vergata, young people who spoke of pardon and of chastity, of prayer and of commitment, of vocational seeking , young people for whom peace is something more than "sex, drugs and rock 'n roll". They were all committed to a continuous and complete reconciliation. They were young people who spoke about martyrdom and accepted the challenges of the Pope who questioned them from the Gospel, from the "workshop of faith", from the workshop where the Christian generations of the third millennium are forged.

Youth is perfect time to present ideal of Christian holiness that is born from love

Youth is not "only a period of life that corresponds to a certain number of years, it is also a time given by Providence to every person and given to him as a responsibility. Duringthat time he searches, like the young man in the Gospel, for answers to basic questions; he searches not only for the meaning of life, but also for a concrete way to go about living his life. This is the most fundamental characteristic of youth" (Crossing thethreshold of hope, ch. 19). In fact, these words of Pope John Paul II describe very well what youth is. It is the time of life in which the human being establishes himself. It is, therefore, a period of work in personal formation, in forging one's character, in deepening the values that will sustain one's life. For this reason, if young people are a duty in themselves, they are also a duty for the Church, a priority choice in the commitment to the evangelization of the men and women of our time and in the construction of a society founded on Christian values.

Youth, moreover, is the time when the human being seeks love as a key instrument for his growth and self-fulfilment. It is the time when the desire to give one's life to the other and to others is strongest. Youth is self-giving, commitment, generosity. For this reason it is the perfect time for presenting the ideal of Christian holiness that is born from love. The young person seeks love and the Church, following Christ, makes love the centre of her message and the instrument for carrying out her mission. This priority of love is the point where the Church and young people meet. It is a long journey that does not end in a day, but it is a goal that harmonizes desire and providesthe courage to overcome difficulties and accept suffering. This love is real, it is not mere sentiment. It is a love that takes life in its entirety and impels it towards the summit of happiness.

In his greeting for the 15th World Youth Day, the Pope askedthe young people: "What did you come to seek?You came here to celebrate your Jubilee; the Jubilee of the young Church. Yours is not just any journey: if you have set out on pilgrimage, it is not just for the sake of recreation or an interest in culture. Well then, let me ask again: what have you come in search of? Or rather, who have you come hereto find? There can only be one answerto that: you have come in search of Jesus Christ! But Jesus Christ has first gone in search of you. To celebrate the Jubilee can have no other meaning than that of celebrating and meeting Jesus Christ, the Word who took flesh and came to dwell among us" (John Paul II, 15 August 2000). The young people of the Jubilee were seeking Christ becausethis need for a sure guide is typical of young people. Young people "need guides, andthey want them close at hand" (Crossing thethreshold of hope, ch. 19). For this reason they need Christ, his Word, his person, his testimony, but above all his salvation. The Church continues Christ's work. Jesus Christ is in the Church, the Church is born from him. Only she can present Christ to the young people with certainty and truth. Christ is the best guide,he is the only one who has words of eternal life.

To be able to give, we must first draw near to Christ and fully understand his message

Young people are for the Church "a gift of the Spirit of God" (NovoMillennio ineunte, n. 9). They make her discover the deepest reality of her mission. The long lines of young people waiting to go to confession in the Circus Maximus restored the confidence of many priests in the sacrament of reconciliation. They taught us anew to be priests or, rather, they reconfirmed us in our vocation. They gave the world a very eloquent lesson of transcendence in presenting themselves to the merciful judgement of the Lord of life and of history in the magnificent setting of the Circus Maximus.

Young people invite us with their testimony to fix our gaze on the Lord, to contemplate his face. If we want to present to our young people an authentic Church, based on a sincere faith, a strong hope and love that knows no barriers, we must turn to Christ, the guide of young people, the only Master. "The Church's joy was great this year, as she devoted herself to contemplating the face of her Bridegroom andLord. She became more than ever a pilgrim people, led by him who is the 'great shepherd of the sheep' (Heb 13,20). With extraordinary energy, involving so many of her members, the People of God here in Rome, as well as in Jerusalem and in all the individual local Churches, went through the 'Holy Door' that is Christ. To him who is the goal of history and the one Saviour of the world, the Church and the Spirit cried out: 'Marana tha—Come, Lord Jesus' (cf. Apoc 22,17.20; 1 Cor 16,22)" (NovoMillennio ineunte, n. 1). Young peopleask the Church to preserve this energy, this attitude of tireless searching for the face of Christ in all things, in all events; this is the sign of true authenticity.

To be able to give, we must first contemplate, draw near to Christ to attract others, profoundly understand his message to be able to transmit it in depth.

To follow Jesus is to walk in his footsteps, to adopt his way of life, to believe in his values

With their enthusiasm, young people encourage the Church to "put out into the deep". They tell us, with the Pope,not to be afraid to leave our many certainties to become seriously committed to a life of holiness and the evangelization of men. They invite us to be more generous. They teach us to put more trust in the action of the Lord, the only one whocan change the hearts of two million young people, than in ourselveswho have spent many nights fishing without catching even one fish. We have learned a lot from the experience of the World Youth Days, for which the most optimistic calculations of participation have always been exceeded by the action of God.

We must leave the peace of the lakeside and set out towards the encounter with God and with men.

Before a world in which the value of the superficial and the pleasurable holds sway, the young pilgrims made us discover the way of the Cross which is the way of authenticity in following Christ. To follow Jesus is to walk in his footsteps, adopt his way of life, believe in his values and in his convictions. It is to learn to give everything its right place, to establish clearly the parameters of the mission that has been entrusted to us. "Jesus is not a Messiah of triumph and power. In fact, he did not free Israel from Roman rule and he never assured it of political glory. As a true Servant of the Lord, he carried out his mission in solidarity, in service, and in the humiliation of death. He is the Messiah who did not fit into any mould and who came without fanfare, and who cannot be 'understood' with the logic of success and power, the kind of logic often used by the world to verify its projects and actions" (Message for the 16th World Youth Day, n. 2).

To follow Christ means to deny oneself and "to deny oneself is to give up one's own plans that are often small and petty in order to accept God's plan. This is the path of conversion, something indispensable in a Christian life, and that led St Paul to say, 'it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me' (Gal 2,20). Jesus does not ask us to give up living, but to accept a newness and fullness of life that only he can give. The human being has a deep-rooted tendency to 'think only of self', to regard one's own person as the centre of interest and to see oneself as the standard against which to gauge everything. One who chooses to follow Christ, on the other hand, avoids being wrapped up in himself and does not evaluate things according to self interest. He looks on life in terms of gift and gratuitousness, not in terms of conquest and possession. Life in its fullness is only lived in self-giving, and that is the fruit of the grace of Christ: an existence that is free and in communion with God and neighbour (cf. Gaudium etspes, n. 24)" (ibid., n. 4).

For disciples of Christ the Cross is a sign of love and not of torture

To follow Christ, to be his disciple, is to courageously take the path of the Cross. For a disciple of Christ, the Cross is a sign of love, not of torture. "it is not suffering for its own sake that a Christian seeks, but love. When the cross is embraced it becomes a sign of love and of total self-giving. To carry it behind Christ means to be united with him in offering the greatest proof of love" (ibid., n. 5).

We should not be afraid of proposing and of inviting young people to follow Christ. The Holy Father has been doing so since the beginning of his pontificate, he did it again in Tor Vergata and he asks it again in the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio ineunte: "if Christ is presented to young people as he really is, they experience him as an answer that is convincing and they can accept his message, even when it is demanding and bears the mark of the Cross. For this reason, in response to their enthusiasm, I did not hesitate to ask them to make a radical choice of faith and life and present them with a stupendous task: to become 'morning watchmen' (cf. Is 21,11-12) at the dawn of the millennium" (ibid.,n. 9).

These young people are the "morning watchmen" who will awaken their brothers and sisters and put out into the deep in this vast ocean of the third millennium which is opening before the Church.

May Mary Most Holy, "Star of the New Evangelization" be "the radiant dawn and sure guide for our steps" (ibid.,n. 58).  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
8/15 August 2001, page 10

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069