VATICAN CITY – Blessed John Paul II rallied young Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI instructed them and Pope Francis is preparing to send them out on mission.
When he travels to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day, Pope Francis will continue a tradition begun by Blessed John Paul in Buenos Aires in 1987, gathering Catholic youths from around the world for several days of faith-building and celebration.
Each World Youth Day with the pope has been different in size and in the culture the youths experienced and shared.
But the contributions of each pope also have left striking marks on the 11 international gatherings held since 1987.
World Youth Days are so much a part of Catholic life now that it is hard to imagine just how innovative the idea first seemed.
Blessed John Paul invited young people to his Palm Sunday celebration at the Vatican during the 1985 UN-proclaimed Year of Youth and Vatican officials were shocked when some 250,000 young people showed up; they had planned for 60,000.
For Blessed John Paul, youth were not just the future of the Church, but the embodiment of its energy and enthusiasm.
Their energy certainly worked on him. One of the iconic photographs from World Youth Day 1995 in Manila shows the pope twirling the cane he relied on after breaking his leg and undergoing hip replacement surgery eight months earlier.
At his last World Youth Day, the 2002 celebration in Toronto, a frail 82-year-old Pope John Paul looked and sounded better than he had in months, demonstrating once again his special chemistry with young people.
The German Pope Benedict inherited from Blessed John Paul the 2005 celebration of World Youth Day in Cologne and brought to the encounters a sense of the seriousness of the Christian call.
Under Pope Benedict, the evening vigil was transformed from a rally into Eucharistic Adoration, surprisingly silent and devout, given the fact that it involved tens of thousands of young people on their knees in the dirt in a wide open field.
Pope Francis inherited WYD Rio from Pope Benedict, who chose the theme: "Go and make disciples of all nations." It's a theme that's right up Pope Francis' alley.
With the young people, he's likely to use the word he's repeated most in his morning homilies and his meetings with Catholic groups; his Italian "Avanti!" is likely to resound in Spanish ("Adelante!"), Portuguese ("Adiante!") and English ("Go forth!").
For Pope Francis, going forth requires motion. It's about leaving the comfort of one's group or parish and sharing the Gospel both through serving the poor and wounded and through proclaiming faith in Jesus with words, smiles and embraces.