It’s hard to fathom that we’ll catch Tim Tebow in a TMZ moment any time soon – probably not even in our lifetime, for that matter. The devout Christian doesn’t drink, doesn’t do drugs and hasn’t even managed to utter one syllable of egocentricity during the hundreds of public interviews about his skyrocketed path to national sports stardom. Tebow has seemingly broken the mold; the mold, that is, for the modern day pop culture hero who is typically idolized by young people for behavior that is radical, rebellious and outrageous. The crazier the behavior, the cooler that pop idol becomes.
By that standard, Tim Tebow would be the furthest thing from cool; considered a square, a nerd or at least a “goody two shoes,” by old-fashioned labels. And yet here’s the cool thing: Tebow is beloved by thousands of young people. But while Tim Tebow may be cast as an unlikely role model for today’s youth, he is by no means the most unlikely figure to inspire young people in recent history.
When Tebow entered this world in Makiti City, Philippines in 1987, he would have had no capacity to imagine that just seven years later that same densely populated metro region would host an event that would attract one of the largest human gatherings in the recorded history of mankind. In 1995 Pope John Paul II held his sixth World Youth Day in Manila, Philippines, and youth pilgrimages from around the world brought an estimated five million people to the city for worship, celebration and social interaction. It constituted the largest Papal gathering in Roman Catholic history, and may have been the largest Christian gathering of any kind. And young people were at the center of it all.
The Rock-Star Pope
Ten years prior, the charismatic and visionary Pope John Paul II had conceived of and initiated World Youth Day as a way to connect with young people across the globe. Since its inception, the biennial week-long event has attracted over 12 million people to major global cities, most of them young people, and most of them inspired to make the journey in order that they might catch a glimpse of this man who had somehow come to mean so much to their individual and collective lives. Only Pope John Paul II could have imagined the incredible success of such an event.
John Paul’s appeal among the youth was uncanny, and defied conventional thinking about what appeals to the masses of youth. Here was a man in his sixties, then seventies, who preached sexual abstinence and strict conformance to Church doctrines. And yet young people admired him in an almost rock-star fashion. Uncanny yes, but not surprising to the pope himself.
In 1979 Pope John Paul II made his first visit to the U.S. during the first year of his papacy. He was a vigorous, athletic and charismatic representative of the Catholic Church, and his trips to New York City and Washington DC were extremely popular, appealing to a cross section of ages. In New York, Pope John Paul II invited tens of thousands of teenagers to join him for a youth convention at Madison Square Garden. As the Pope rode his “pope mobile” up and down the aisle, the raucous crowd whistled, screamed and cheered his name. The pope reveled in the moment, enjoying himself by touching outstretched hands and at times chanting along with the crowd. The event came to symbolize his relevance among the younger generations, and was largely seen as the impetus for the World Youth Day which the pope would officially create six years later.
Appealing to High Ideals
Putting aside divine intervention for a moment, we have to ask what was it that enabled this elder clergyman to connect so profoundly with young people, in a way that has never been experienced by any pope before or since? The answer is quite simple. Pope John Paul II deliberately and actively reached out to young people. He took a sincere interest in who they were, and he showed that he cared about what they cared about. He took them seriously, and perhaps most importantly, he appealed to their high ideals. Cynics might dismiss young people and teenagers as not having high ideals. Pope John Paul II was not a cynic. He was a believer. And he knew better.
As I watched the week of memorial tributes to Coach Joe Paterno after his death, I couldn’t help but see another unlikely hero and inspiration in his own right to many of our country’s youth. Here was a man well into his seventies, whose thick glasses, rolled-up khakis and ever-present tie kept him fashionably linked to a generation long past. And yet he too was adored and admired by thousands of 18, 19 and 20+ year olds, who took to the streets en masse over the loss of their adopted mentor – first in anger over Paterno’s dismissal – then to publicly mourn his death. They unanimously explained their grief as not due to the loss of a football coach, but rather to the loss of a role model whose high-minded ideals and sense of core values they aspired to emulate in their own young lives. The young students connected with this octogenarian, because Joe Paterno acknowledged them, valued them and appealed to their sense of idealism. And the kids loved him for it in return.
As I think of these three stories, I can’t help but be inspired myself. They are irrefutable evidence of the fact that our nation’s youth possess an inherent appreciation – and longing – for a core set of values and ideals. That gives me a feeling of hope, and it puts a different tone on the phrase, “kids today.” And that makes me smile to myself.