“Young people can help keep [the Church] young,” says Pope Francis in his new Apostolic Exhortation, Christus Vivit. “Young people can offer the Church the beauty of youth by renewing her ability to ‘rejoice with new beginnings, to give unreservedly of herself, to be renewed and to set out for ever greater accomplishments’.” (Paragraph 37)
This brief survey of the document is not meant to replace a full reading. Do not be deceived by the length, as it is a quick read. In his very personal style, Francis addresses his Exhortation directly to young people and invites us to participate in that conversation with them. In it, he encourages young people in practical ways of discernment, such as the discernment of vocation, and also invites us older folks to be better witnesses of the faith to them. Pope Francis writes:
A Church always on the defensive, which loses her humility and stops listening to others, which leaves no room for questions, loses her youth and turns into a museum. How, then, will she be able to respond to the dreams of young people? Even if she possesses the truth of the Gospel, this does not mean that she has completely understood it; rather, she is called to keep growing in her grasp of that inexhaustible treasure. (Paragraph 41)
Underlying the Exhortation is the conviction that young people are called to be saints. To express the Church’s conviction in this regard, Francis briefly recounts the biographies of several young holy people whose faith was manifest, even during their sadly short lifetimes. Included among this litany are more contemporary examples, such as Chiara Badano and Carlo Acutis. Carlo had an affinity for computers and for technology, and before his death from leukemia he built a website to recount various stories of Eucharistic miracles. Pope Francis quotes him in his document: “Everyone is born as an original, but many people end up dying as photocopies.”
Later in the document, Francis affirms the role of that kerygma of the faith, the encounter with Christ and his merciful love, who leads us out into “new horizons,” on paths that are uniquely ours. In this vein, he repeats an “important point” he made in Evangellii Gaudium. Specifically, in youth ministry:
Young people need to be approached with the grammar of love, not by being preached at. […] In some places, it happens that young people are helped to have a powerful experience of God, an encounter with Jesus that touched their hearts. But the only follow-up to this is a series of “formation” meetings featuring talks about doctrinal and moral issues, the evils of today’s world, the Church, her social doctrine, chastity, marriage, birth control and so on. As a result, many young people get bored, they lose the fire of their encounter with Christ and the joy of following him; many give up and others become downcast or negative. Rather than being too concerned with communicating a great deal of doctrine, let us first try to awaken and consolidate the great experiences that sustain the Christian life. (Paragraph 212)
In this document, Francis demonstrates his confidence in the ability of young people to actively contribute to the Church. It is clear that he believes young people can enliven and enrich the Church through their energy and their unique skills and talents. In this document, Francis encourages young people to be “rooted.” He writes, “It pains me to see young people sometimes being encouraged to build a future without roots, as if the world were just starting now” (Paragraph 179).
Think about it: if someone tells young people to ignore their history, to reject the experiences of their elders, to look down on the past and to look forward to a future that he holds out, doesn’t it then become easy to draw them along so that they only do what he tells them? He needs the young to be shallow, uprooted and distrustful, so that they can trust only in his promises and act according to his plans. That is how various ideologies operate: they destroy (or deconstruct) all differences so that they can reign unopposed. To do so, however, they need young people who have no use for history, who spurn the spiritual and human riches inherited from past generations, and are ignorant of everything that came before them. (Paragraph 181)
Pope Francis sees the issue of “rootedness” explicitly as a matter of faith and religion, but also in terms of continuity among generations:
The world has never benefitted, nor will it ever benefit, from a rupture between generations. That is the siren song of a future without roots and origins. It is the lie that would have you believe that only what is new is good and beautiful. When intergenerational relationships exist, a collective memory is present in communities, as each generation takes up the teachings of its predecessors and in turn bequeaths a legacy to its successors. In this way, they provide frames of reference for firmly establishing a new society. As the old saying goes: “If the young had knowledge and the old strength, there would be nothing they could not accomplish”. (Paragraph 191)
Pope Francis also spends some time in the document devoted to social media and the internet, since it is obvious, as Francis said, that “Broad swathes of humanity are immersed in it in an ordinary and continuous manner.” After providing a list of some of the virtues of this increased connection in our global community, Francis warns: “It is not healthy to confuse communication with mere virtual contact.”
For many people, immersion in the virtual world has brought about a kind of “digital migration”, involving withdrawal from their families and their cultural and religious values, and entrance into a world of loneliness and of self-invention, with the result that they feel rootless even while remaining physically in one place. The fresh and exuberant lives of young people who want to affirm their personality today confront a new challenge: that of interacting with a real and virtual world that they enter alone, as if setting foot on an undiscovered global continent. Young people today are the first to have to effect this synthesis between what is personal, what is distinctive to their respective cultures, and what is global. This means that they must find ways to pass from virtual contact to good and healthy communication. (Paragraph 90)
As mentioned earlier, this short survey is not meant to replace a full reading, and there is much more in this Exhortation that deserves a fuller and deeper exposition. I have no doubt the whole document can be a source of encouragement and inspiration to young people. For those of us who aren’t as young as we used to be, this exhortation can help us appreciate and be aware of the ways young people around the world have the potential to be active participants in our Church and what we can learn from them. The role of young people in the Church is not merely to learn and be formed by their elders. They contribute, by their own efforts, to the “building of a new society.”
Image Credit: Marko Vombergar, https://www.flickr.com/photos/113018453@N05/24958781062
Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of “encounter” with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.