That They May Be One

Pastors, priests, authors and worship leaders shuffled reverently past the Swiss Guard and into the room. It was Thursday, June 8, and Marty Caldwell, executive vice president of Young Life International Ministries, had been anticipating this moment for months. All were gathered in the spirit of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21, “that they may be one” — Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal together, black and white, men and women, clerics and lay people.

“Thank you for what Young Life does with our church,” one whispered. “We need your help in reaching kids in our city,” another noted. The sense of fraternity was already stirring.

Moments earlier, the room had been arranged in typical fashion — a large chair of historical significance in front with stackable chairs positioned in linear rows for the audience. But this wouldn’t do. The pope asked for the large chair to be removed. He wanted to sit in a stackable chair like everyone else. And concentric circles. He wanted everyone to be able to see not only him but the whole body gathered together. “He was the picture of a servant before he even walked in the room,” Caldwell reflected.

A Historical Appreciation

Caldwell recalled the story of how Jim Rayburn, Young Life’s founder, had visited Rome in 1968. Rayburn met with five Catholic seminarians studying for the priesthood. He loved it. And he loved them. He absolutely cherished the meeting, later calling it “the highlight of my European tour.” Whether he knew it or not, the meeting ushered a rising tide of unity and shared mission about to reach a true watermark for the Kingdom of God.

His heart full, Caldwell sat in his stackable chair and remembered his own encounter with Christ. It was 1969, only a year after Rayburn’s powerful visit to Rome. Caldwell met Jesus through a group of Young Life leaders in Phoenix. It changed his life forever. Nearly 50 years later, Caldwell is now overseeing an explosive growth of Young Life ministries in over 100 countries worldwide.

When Pope Francis entered the room, everyone stood. The pontiff greeted every person slowly, face-to-face, looking each one in the eyes with a gentle handshake. There were pre-submitted questions they were all eager to discuss — questions about prayer, unity in Christ, working together in evangelization and discipleship, loving people well, and healing our broken world. The group worshiped, told stories, prayed and encouraged each other in what would have seemed like a very normal Young Life meeting. The one-hour meeting quickly became two hours, then a half hour more.

Retracing the steps of Rayburn in Rome was powerful for Caldwell. He has always embraced the ecumenical vision of Young Life, building abiding friendships with Protestants and Catholics across the country and, in his current role, around the globe. But this was truly a special moment. Protestants and Catholics together in Christ, hearing Pope Francis speak of the need for effective ministry to young people.

“You are the ones who accompany young people on their path,” Pope Francis said, “helping them find the way that leads to Christ.” He spoke passionately about evangelization, over and over again emphasizing the power of relationships. “Much more than promoting a series of activities for young people, you walk with them,” Pope Francis said, “accompanying them personally in these complex and difficult times.”

It is in this ministry of accompaniment, where the verbal and non-verbal proclamation of Christ is experienced, that real transformation happens. It’s meeting kids where they are, and walking with them through all of life’s challenges, that creates real and enduring connections. “It’s in this connection,” Pope Francis insisted, “where a true dialogue can be engaged in by one who lives a personal relation with the Lord Jesus.”

The pope’s ecumenical heart was evident, always honoring other Christian traditions. He praised the Pentecostal emphasis on the Holy Spirit. He honored the Protestant emphasis on Jesus Christ and the Catholic reverent emphasis on the wonder of the Father. These were all implied and meant as beautiful affirmations that we need each other to fulfill the prayer of John 17 and the Great Commission.

Like Oxygen

The meeting was exhilarating. Caldwell and his wife, Susan, would comment later, “His humility and servant leadership were like oxygen. A good shepherd with his people. A pastor caring for his flock. We were utterly blessed by every second.” The conversation was translated into English from Italian but language was no barrier on this day. “His spirit, his demeanor and the fragrance of Jesus would have been all we needed,” Caldwell recalled. “Here is a good man, a good shepherd who loves Jesus, loves people and wants us to be a unified expression of the gospel for the world.”

Was Young Life mentioned to the pope? “No,” Caldwell said, “and I did not expect it to be.” But Caldwell knows Catholic leaders will not be able to keep quiet for long. Catholic bishops in Texas, Oregon, Kentucky, New York, Tanzania, Kenya, Poland, Nicaragua and many other places are already working with Young Life to reach a world of kids and more connections with the Catholic Church are being made every day. He has every confidence Pope Francis will soon hear about Young Life as an ecumenical collaboration of churches reaching adolescents for Jesus and helping them grow in their faith.

So what should we do? “Pray,” Caldwell said. “Start in prayer.” Caldwell further exhorted:

“Read John 17 and pray. Then call a local priest or pastor and offer to get to know each other in friendship. Then pray John 17 together. Of course Young Life will come up. Let it come up in friendship and in a vision for kids to know Jesus. Invite others from different Christian traditions than yours. Rather than begin with, ‘How can we work together?’ Begin with, ‘How can we pray for our city together?’ Friendship will take it from there.”

What else? Marty said, “Go to the school, go to the neighborhood, get some leaders together and plan camp, call your community to pray for kids. What? That sounds like, ‘Keep doing good Young Life.’ Yup. Indeed.” And if you need help, don’t hesitate to call the office of Young Life – Catholic Relations. We have staff to walk with you every step of the way.

By the way, they sang “Amazing Grace” as they closed. Amazing. Grace. Indeed.

You can contact the Young Life Catholic Relations office at:
Director — Dr. Michael Havercamp •​ • 563-549-0556
Eastern States — Nathan Gunn •
Western States — Marisa Avramovich •