Havana is where I first witnessed the Pontiff 's extraordinary connection to youth. I was reporting for ABC News in 1998 and found myself with a group of students who had gathered on the front steps of the white columned entrance of Havana University, stacks of loudspeakers framing its gigantic locked doors. Beside me were about two dozen uniformed police, on duty for the address, inside, of John Paul II to the elite of Cuba. His Holiness had insisted his words be broadcast outside, so hundreds of young Cubans had gathered to listen.
That eventful week in January, John Paul reprised the politically savvy blueprint he had used to such effect in Eastern Europe to undermine communism. On his arrival at Jose Marti Airport, he paid tribute to Fidel Castro with a diplomat's neutral and carefully crafted words. But with each subsequent speech, his call for liberty and freedom became more pointed and urgent. He was feeding the bravery of his Cuban Church, hoping his words would also empower youth to trust the Church to protect them from the oppression of the State.
On the university's stone steps that day, his call for individual rights was the most direct of his visit. I could see the words emboldening the students. The bravest among them moved to the front of the crowd, and the police started to close the gaps. With each paragraph this brave Pope spoke truth right over the heads of the elite who could see him, into the ears of the young outside, hungry to hear it.
The crowd made a very tentative move forward, uncertain of how the police would respond. After another cautious step forward, a few voices were raised demanding to be let inside to see His Holiness. The police moved toward them, and for a few minutes they were nose to nose with a dozen young men, clearly calculating their next move carefully. I could feel their revolutionary impulse rising.
On this day, however, the Pope ended his speech too quickly and the hypnotic connection was broken. The students turned away and marched through the streets of Havana shouting the Pope's words for others to hear.
Four years later and home in Canada, I was perched high on a riser overlooking another crowd of young people, this one 850,000 strong. A now visibly frail Pontiff had arrived, theatrically by helicopter, and I was preparing to share his words with a huge television audience. Even with my previous exposure to the power of this Pope, I remember being taken aback by the size of the crowd gathered on the Downsview lands in Toronto, and its passion for him. For two days the streets of the city had been packed with faithful youth, not all of them Catholic, and they changed its character. Toronto was briefly a place where young people roamed with broad smiles and embraced strangers. A patient city, more polite than usual.
The Pontiff spoke with great difficulty, but just as in Havana, every sentence carried enormous weight. There was the unspoken understanding that this would likely be his last World Youth Day, so his words felt eternal. "You are young and the Pope is old and tired," he struggled to say through a weak smile. And then he spoke of the enduring power of hope, in his own life and theirs. "No difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young."
When I reread his words today, they have even deeper meaning. Everywhere in the news today we are reporting on the power of hope in youth. They are toppling tyrants and hereditary rulers, standing up to corruption and greed, challenging the consensus of the elites. Our youth is pioneering new and potent forms of communication, connecting to each other across borders and continents. I can't help wondering how social media, had it existed then, might have changed the dynamic on those steps in Havana. What might have happened if those students could have tweeted his words and spread the Pope's message beyond the limits of his voice? Could he, even in advanced age, have empowered so many more?
So few leaders of a Church, a country or even a company are wise enough to respect the young and fuse their destiny to their own. That was John Paul's brilliance. As I watched hundreds of thousands return that respect with adulation and love 10 years ago, the Pope was guiding me, too. That day he displayed how age should breed humility and preached how true wisdom resides in the hearts of the young. It was a lesson in faith I took to heart.