Seeing the Church through Young Eyes
In ‘Christus Vivit,’ Pope Francis empowers, challenges youths
Maybe it is because I’m getting older. Maybe it is because I’ve always been a little salty when it comes to anything that strikes me as pandering to a particular audience. Maybe it is because one of my instructors in seminary pointed out that I have the potential to be “caustic and abrasive” when I don’t like what those in authority over me say.
But I had a hard time getting through the initial chapters of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Christus Vivit (“Christ is Alive”).
I know, I know … this is the first time the Vatican has ever issued a document on young people. I know that there was a whole big synod on the topic with experts from all over making contributions to the dialogue. I know that I should have a more profound level of humility when approaching a papal document. I know that. But!
I think the terms that kept passing through my mind were “insufferable” and “inane.” Mind you, I was not intending to use those terms in this brief article, but the tone of the exhortation kept reminding me of the tired way some adults try to butter up young people. I’m paraphrasing, but notions like “youth is the best!” kept echoing through the first chapters.
The Holy Father repeatedly emphasized how much young people have to teach the rest of the Church. Each time Pope Francis would say something along those lines, I was reminded of the crotchety old priest who taught our dogmatics course during my first year of major seminary. He minced no words and made it very clear that his class was a lecture. He said: “This is not a discussion class, this is a lecture-based class. If it were a discussion class, it would merely be an exercise in shared ignorance.”
That is what I kept thinking as I read the first half of the document; we have the least well-catechized (most ignorant) generation of Catholics in recent memory … but they have a lot to teach us? Here I am, years later, apparently auditioning for the role of crotchety old priest.
But then? Then Pope Francis began teaching. Even more, he began proclaiming.
Chapter 4 is a proclamation of God’s love in the Person of Jesus Christ. It is the kerygma offered to a new generation and renewed for all generations. In three simple steps, Pope Francis uttered powerful truths: God is love, Christ saves you, and the Spirit gives life. He declares that “we are saved by Jesus because he loves us and cannot go against his nature. We can do any number of things against him, yet he loves us and he saves us. For only what is loved can be saved. Only what is embraced can be transformed. The Lord’s love is greater than all our problems, frailties and flaws. Yet it is precisely through our problems, frailties and flaws that he wanted to write this love story” (Christus Vivit, No. 120).
At first I read these words with a critical eye. Then I realized that the successor of Peter was not only speaking to the youth of the world in such a way that they would respond with, “Then what must we do to be saved?” I myself was cut to the heart by the power of his preaching. What I had initially seen only as catering to the younger demographic was nothing of the sort; he was reaching out to them.
Growth Toward Real Maturity
But he didn’t stop there.
In Chapter 5 the Holy Father went even further to challenge us all: “I hope that you will be serious enough about yourselves to make an effort to grow spiritually. … Adults, too, have to mature without losing the values of youth. … Growing older means preserving and cherishing the most precious things about our youth, but it also involves having to purify those things that are not good and receiving new gifts from God so we can develop the things that really matter” (Nos. 158-160). In these brief words, Pope Francis makes it very clear that he does not see youth as the goal, but the process of purification and growth toward real maturity, which requires certain characteristics.
|‘Realize that You have a Mission|
“Whatever you fall in love with, it will win over not only
your imagination, it will affect everything. It will be what
makes you get up in the morning, what keeps you going
at times of fatigue, what will break open your hearts and
fill you with wonder, joy and gratitude. Realize that you
have a mission and fall in love; that will decide everything!”
— Pope Francis, homily at the closing Mass of World Youth
Day in Panama, Jan. 27, 2019
Specifically, the pope discouraged self-centered religion by teaching that one’s “spiritual growth is expressed above all by … growth in fraternal, generous and merciful love” (No. 163). God’s love must take “us out of ourselves,” he wrote (No. 164). When a person (young or old) is tempted to withdraw or turn in on oneself, they must persevere in seeing God’s image in others, even those who have hurt us.
Rather than tolerating or encouraging the temptation to remain free and unattached from responsibilities, the pope instructed us that it is a gift to commit one’s youth (and one’s life) to God. This commitment must “go beyond [one’s] small groups and … build ‘social friendship,’ where everyone works for the common good” (No. 169). What I mistakenly had perceived as a toothless endorsement of sentimentality about youth was nothing of the sort.
The last straw came in Chapter 6. I have long lamented that it often seems like young people have no sense of history. When U.S. representatives talk about themselves as if no one in the political system has ever been in their position, or like they are the trailblazers, I can hardly stand the arrogance of those who are unwittingly (and ungratefully) standing on shoulders of giants who have come before them. My cantankerous nature was definitively overcome when Pope Francis wrote that “it pains me to see young people sometimes being encouraged to build a future without roots, as if the world were just starting now” (No. 179).
Pope Francis went on to enjoin young people to pay attention to history and look to the wisdom of our elders. He then blasted the “cult of youth, which dismisses all that is not young as contemptible and outmoded” (No. 182) and advised young people and old people to be intentional about developing and living out relationships that cross generational boundaries so as to grow in wisdom and renewed community.
‘Young Eyes’ Reading
At that point, I was done. I was humbled in the face of my own pride and the assumptions that I incorrectly had brought to my reading of this document.
With all this in mind, I reread the beginning of the document with new eyes (Pope Francis would call them “young eyes”). Almost immediately I noticed that what I first had seen in the document as pandering was actually the Holy Father making an appeal. He wasn’t praising every possible youthful or self-involved or selfish attitude. Instead the pope warned against wasting one’s life by spending it merely on oneself. He admonished young people to begin living life more fully by giving of one’s youth.
Pope Francis reminds us that Christ’s own youth teaches us. Where I had merely reduced the Holy Father’s message to “teach us, young people,” he was, in fact, making it clear that Jesus is the Savior and model. Every young person who is developing and preparing to take up their mission in life can learn from Jesus by “growing in a relationship with the Father, in awareness of being a part of a family and a people, and in openness to being filled with the Holy Spirit and led to carry out the mission God gives them, their personal vocation” (No. 30).
How had I missed this?
Even when Pope Francis praised the youth of the Church, he constantly reminded the Church to avoid the trap of “thinking that she is young because she accepts everything the world offers her. No! The Church is young when she is herself, when she receives ever anew the strength born of God’s Word, the Eucharist, and the daily presence of Christ and the power of his Spirit in our lives” (No. 35).
Pope Francis has a message for young Christians: “Christ is alive, and he wants you to be alive!”
In his fourth apostolic exhortation, Christus Vivit, Pope Francis encapsulates the work of the 2018 synod of bishops on “Young People, The Faith, and Vocational Discernment.” Christus Vivit is written for and to young people, but Pope Francis also wrote it for the entire Church, because, as he says, reflecting on our young people inspires us all.
“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.”
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The Church’s Heart
He noted that while there are young people who want the Church to listen to them, there are many others who “are happy to see a Church that is humble yet confident in her gifts and capable of offering fair and fraternal criticism” (No. 41). The pope offered a perspective on the Church’s heart as well as her head.
When he recounted the many crises that devastate the lives of people throughout the world, I found myself with a hard heart. I mean, we know these things. As priests, we deal with people in the midst of these things as a priest all of the time. I can’t just break down in tears every time I encounter these sufferings. But then Francis wrote: “As a Church, may we never fail to weep before these tragedies of our young. May we never become inured to them, for anyone incapable of tears cannot be a mother” (No. 75).
Yikes. I sometimes find that this old heart of mine has no time for tears. But the young heart promised in sacred Scripture is what is necessary in order to belong to and be like Christ. The young heart that can still be wounded by loving like Jesus. This is the heart that Pope Francis is praising when he speaks so positively about youth as a gift: the vulnerable, open, other-oriented heart of Jesus Christ.
In fact, Pope Francis has sharp criticism for the way our current culture does not celebrate youths, but “exploits the image of the young. Beauty is associated with a youthful appearance, cosmetic treatments that hide the traces of time. The ideal of beauty is youth, but we need to realize that this has very little to do with young people. It only means that adults want to snatch youth for themselves, not that they respect, love and care for young people” (No. 79). In a few short words, Pope Francis underscores what is happening with our cultural obsession with youth: It is the sickness of adults, not the youths. He points out that “sometimes … adults try to imitate young people, thus inverting the relationship between generations” (No. 80). How could I have missed this? How could I have missed that Pope Francis presents clear vision for approaching youths as well as approaching maturity? The price of being crotchety is not worth what it costs.
Pope Francis ends the exhortation by addressing how adults and youths can work together to honor God, follow Jesus Christ’s call to discipleship and reach those who have not encountered the unstoppable love of God.
Through the family, ministry oriented toward youths and by pursuing one’s vocation wholeheartedly (but in close connection with those around us), Pope Francis gives the word of encouragement for all to continue running the race. Even crotchety old priests.
FATHER MICHAEL SCHMITZ is the director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota, as well as the chaplain for the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He offers weekly homilies on iTunes and bulldogCatholic.org and appears in regular short video messages on Ascension Presents.