When I was six turning seven, we had the Year of Three Popes. “What’s a pope?” I asked. My parents said something surprising, about him being the head of the church. As Anglicans, we prayed for the “Queen, head of the Commonwealth, defender of the faith.” At eight, I concluded I would better serve Jesus following the Apostles than the successor of Henry VIII. So at 13, I made my Profession of Faith and formally became a Catholic.

Though there are many answers to the question I posed in 1978, in every pontificate the church is given a spiritual father. Elected while I pondered, John Paul II made a true gift of himself, especially to young people. Generation X was the first to grow up with unlimited birth control, abortion and divorce; with widespread childcare by strangers or, for some, self-care and the latch-key. Ours has been called the worst-catechised generation in history. Yet, because of the popes of our time, we have been given redemptive opportunities to consciously share the Gospel and build the culture of life.

Among many ways the two most recent popes have shaped young people is World Youth Day. My 1993 bus trip to Denver WYD was heroically chaperoned by two priests and a professor. Just counting me and the friends I’m in touch with 15 years later, our alumni include a food bank worker, a political consultant, a media assistant and nursing student, an internet news editor and a crisis pregnancy centre director – every one of us an asset to the pro-life movement. Fittingly, our theme was, “I came that they might have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

It is an obligation of spiritual parenthood to provide young people with opportunities that affirm life; otherwise, the Enemy will provide opportunities that glamourize death. A recent Saturday night on the Toronto subway illustrates this.

Five gorgeous but scantily clad young women came screaming into my car, demanding to know who would help them win $500 in an MTV scavenger hunt. Abetted by one or two passengers, they recorded themselves as we travelled – shouting obscenities, cartwheeling and simulating sex acts. Some of us – Christian, Muslim, indeterminate – experienced this as an assault, but pressing the black and yellow alarm would only have prolonged the problem. The next stop was mine and I headed for the doors. The girls’ leader eagerly inquired if I would help. $500!

I declined. “There’s really no price for your dignity.”

“True,” she retorted, “but we’ll never see these people again.” Then the doors flew open and she and her entourage exited, screaming as they carried on through the station and beyond.

In other news, an apostolic letter On the Dignity and Vocation of Women was published 20 years ago this month. And in July, the present Pope, Benedict XVI, told the Sydney WYD pilgrims that “a new generation of Christians is being called to help build a world in which God’s gift of life is welcomed, respected and cherished – not rejected, feared as a threat and destroyed.” Their theme was, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8).

One aspect of the “world” celebrations is that they are spread among continents – meaning that this time, I know few who were able to attend from Generation Y, the Millenials. Another aspect is that WYD fruits ripple well beyond particular settings, so these young people are being nurtured closer to home. When I began my undergraduate work, the chaplains were unable to direct me to the pro-life group. Today’s chaplains – increasingly from X, turned “the JP II generation” – are faithful and on fire. They are more likely to promote Scripture, tradition, liturgy, Eucharistic adoration and respect for life.

The students they form are well-prepared for pro-life work. With their deep-seated faith, they can interact lovingly with the marginalized; support each other to stretch and not to break; and withstand the persecution and grief that come with offering real alternatives to abortion.

Pope Benedict asks them, “How are you using the gifts you have been given, the ‘power’ which the Holy Spirit is even now prepared to release within you? What legacy will you leave to young people yet to come? What difference will you make?” As a spiritual father like his predecessor, he knows that times of desolation are inevitable for missionaries – whether young or young at heart. Before sending them out, he has first encouraged abundant opportunities for storing up the treasure of consolation.

Now, that’s a pope.