During the better part of the past year, we have found ourselves engulfed in a crisis situation that has affected all of humanity. The Covid-19 pandemic and all of its side effects have converged in a crisis that we did not choose but that has nevertheless forced itself into our lives and disrupted our way of living. The past several months have provided many lessons about the world we—especially those of us in the affluent Western hemisphere—have built for ourselves.
Foremost among these is the painful lesson that our world order had become extremely fragile. To borrow Pope Francis’s phrase from his prayer service in an empty St. Peter’s Square at the end of March, we were going on with life, “thinking we would remain healthy in a world that was sick.” We were working our everyday jobs, booking vacations, planning birthday parties and weddings and get-togethers, managing our finances, planning retirement, and doing whatever else we did in our everyday lives without reflecting on how our actions shaped our world.
In young adults such as myself, the realizations of this year have provoked a certain fear—an anxiety about the ways the economic systems we set up for ourselves have become unsustainable and fragile, tilted to favour the affluent while making the poor pay, all while neglecting long-term costs to the environment. We’ve watched the exacerbating effects of climate change from Australia to California to Texas and seen democracy thrown into question, with the rise of a dangerous nationalisms and the formation of post-truth societies based on conspiracy theories that damage real people’s lives and real institutions on which we’ve come to rely.
If the Covid-19 pandemic has made one thing clear, it is this: for those of us under 30, there won’t be a return to “normal” if “normal” is defined as “life before the pandemic of 2020.” On one hand, this reality creates fear because the securities upon which our parents’ generation and the generation before theirs relied will not be available to us. The challenges facing our generation are real and they will be difficult. However, on the other hand, they bring with them an opportunity: we will be the ones challenged with finding solutions to the environmental crises, with responding to rising nativist tendencies around the world, with drafting new and creative economic systems. Indeed, we will be charged with “resetting,” reimagining, and becoming co-creators of a how we can live together in the future.
This reality essentially leaves our generation with two distinct pathways to choose from: we can either strive to create a world that is better than it was before this crisis, or we can create one that is worse. Both options are possible. The one thing that is not viable, whether we like it or not, is a return to how things were. How we choose from here will decide which of the two worlds ends up becoming reality. It will determine the way in which our generation will go about responding to the situations and crises that come our way, and it will define our way of solving the problems that present themselves.
When faced with a crisis—a time for choosing—and especially one of this magnitude, we need a blueprint to help us find our way, a mindset and vision that will serve as a reference point helping us to choose wisely. The task in front of us, which entails envisioning new ways of living on this earth, is too large a task for us simply to wing it and hope for the best. We need guidance; in the context of Christianity, we might say we need a spiritual director to help us.
During the past year, I’ve been especially grateful for the prophetic leadership Pope Francis has shown in volunteering to become the world’s “spiritual director.” In prayer services, homilies, and his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, he calls our world to conversion. Coming with his own share of trials and setbacks, Francis offers a wealth of experience to the world and especially to young people, who at the end of the day will be saddled with the hard task of leadership in a broken world. He makes each one of us feel dissatisfied with life as it is, injecting us with a healthy restlessness. He courageously describes what he sees, a world of failed economic systems and an unsustainable way of life.
While many well-meaning elders tend to discourage change and are understandably protective of the systems they built and profited from, Francis is free from these constraints in a truly evangelical sense. He encourages us to think outside of old frames of reference and to venture into uncharted territory. He’s a leader whose judgment we can trust, which sets him apart from many leaders—political and religious—of our time.
Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Pope Francis, did the world a great service this December by working with Francis to synthesize the pope’s thoughts and teachings on the pandemic situation in a short, eminently-readable book titled Let Us Dream. In the book, which is divided into three parts reflecting Pope Francis’ discernment philosophy—seeing, judging/choosing and acting –, the pope lays out his vision for drafting a new future after this crisis.
No analysis of this book could do it justice, for almost every paragraph contains words that deserve to be reflected upon slowly and that have the power to change us in real ways, if we allow them to. I encourage everyone struggling to find meaning during this difficult time to buy the book and read it in full. If you do, I hope that, like me, you will be energized by and eager to accept Pope Francis’s invitation to become part of a “movement of people who know we need each other, who have a sense of responsibility to others and to the world.” Together, guided by God and the Holy Father, we might yet create the foundation for a future worth building.
Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future by Pope Francis (in collaboration with Austen Ivereigh) was released by Simon & Schuster on December 1, 2020. In this book, Pope Francis explains why we must—and how we can—make the world safer, fairer, and healthier for all people now.
Image: Vatican Media
Joe Schweighofer is a lay Catholic and civil engineer originally from Ontario, Canada. He has lived in Graz, Austria for over ten years, where he studied at the Graz University of Technology and worked for two years in a Catholic campus ministry project. He currently works as a geotechnical engineer in Graz, where he lives with his wife, Elyse.