Dear young people, my joyful hope is to see you keep running the race before you, outstripping all those who are slow or fearful. Keep running, “attracted by the face of Christ, whom we love so much, whom we adore in the Holy Eucharist and acknowledge in the flesh of our suffering brothers and sisters. May the Holy Spirit urge you on as you run this race. The Church needs your momentum, your intuitions, your faith. We need them! And when you arrive where we have not yet reached, have the patience to wait for us”. (Christus Vivit, 299)
As often happens when I’m reading spiritual works, whether the Bible or a papal document, I become fixated on a single phrase. (This must explain my long love affair with lectio divina.) This happened again with Pope Francis’s recent apostolic exhortation to us young people, though I was surprised at the line that stuck with me this time around.
At one point in chapter seven, in which Francis talks about youth ministry, he mentions a bar.
Just one line. It’s almost a throwaway. All he does is mention that young people can introduce their friends to Jesus “in a conversation at a bar.” This phrase appears in a list of ways the whippersnappers share their love of Jesus with other people, including the Internet and holidays.
What struck me about it, on reflection, is two-fold. First, it reveals that the Pope isn’t very interested in figuring out ways for young people to talk about Jesus. He essentially says, “I’m old. You’re young. You already know how young people live. You’re smart enough to figure out how to bring Jesus into their lives.” Remarkable stuff, really, that the Pope just sort of claps his hands together and wishes us good luck. (He gives us some tips, but there’s nothing like a roadmap to evangelism here.)
The second quality that stuck out to me, especially as an American, is that the Pope basically just endorsed going out for a drink with your friends.
American Christians of all stripes tend to get queasy when it comes to recreation. While Europeans see beer and cigarettes as a part of social life, we tend to be more than a bit puritanical in our assessment of fun. We tend to look down on drinking, dancing, smoking, feasting, and partying. (Lots of American Christians would furrow their brows if they saw the pipe smoke coming from my nose as I write this.)
We also worry that having a good time makes us look like hypocrites. In reality, it just makes us human. When the Son of God took human flesh, the first miracle He did was at a party. And, as we know so well, that party served some stellar wine.
Consider it practically: the fun places are where the people are. If Catholics are going to do this new evangelization project, we’ve got to go where the lost sheep are herding. But more than this, good times have been redeemed by the Cross. We often talk about redemptive suffering, and rightly so, but we rarely think of redemptive recreation. Sports, bars, restaurants, concerts, parties, lounges… these are as open to the work of the Holy Spirit as anywhere else. These are just as much in need of redemption as the people who frequent them.
I can’t tell you that going out for a drink is always a good thing. (Clearly, it’s bad for some of us.) I can’t tell you to go to a club to dance. I’m a quiet-life kind of guy myself; if you catch me at a loud party, something has gone desperately wrong. And I can’t tell you that every party is good, or that every bar is a prudent place to hang out. But you have a conscience that I hope you’re trying to form according to the Gospel. That process of formation involves making mistakes, yes, but it also involves taking risks. It means going places where your friends and acquaintances are, even if those places are a bit awkward for you or somewhere that less than savory people congregate. I can’t tell you whether and when to go or what to do once you show up.
What I can tell you is this: are you going out for a drink? Are you going to a casino with friends? Are you going dancing? Are you at a Mardi Gras parade? Are you on a camping trip? Bring Jesus. He would’ve shown up at any of those, anyway. And you’ve seen what He does whenever He’s invited someplace. He was often around those unsavory people we fear, eating and drinking, laughing and socializing.
There are all sorts of things I’m uncomfortable doing, and plenty of other Christians might frown at you for doing. Discerning exactly what and when each is a wholesome, moral idea is far beyond the scope of this little essay. All I will say is, wherever you’re going, save a seat. If the bartender asks, tell him that God will have the rum and coke.
As for outreach, I trust that young people themselves know how best to find appealing ways to come together. They know how to organize events, sports competitions and ways to evangelize using social media, through text messages, songs, videos and other ways. They only have to be encouraged and given the freedom to be enthused about evangelizing other young people wherever they are to be found. When the message is first brought up, whether at a youth retreat, in a conversation at a bar, on school holidays, or in any of God’s mysterious ways, it can awaken a deep experience of faith. What is most important, though, is that each young person can be daring enough to sow the seed of the message on that fertile terrain that is the heart of another young person. (Christus Vivit, 210)