God Has Not Been Idle with the Young

Photo Bombing the Superior General of the Jesuits

Photo Bombing the Superior General of the Jesuits

On the way to an airport, bedraggled and sleep deprived, I found myself on a bus with a random assortment of backpacks and young adults.  Seated in front of me was a young man from Australia.  I recognized Tom from the previous day.  He asked a great question during the meeting between Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, the superior general of the Jesuits, and representatives from each of the delegations present at the Magis gathering before World Youth Day.

Responding to questions and concerns voiced by young representatives from 6 continents about the experience of young people with faith and the Church, Fr. General slowed down and said, with perfect confidence, “God has not been idle with the young.”  With so many people worried about the youth, with the mainstream media talking about the lost generation — with the Church seemingly beginning to mourn a generation that is abandoning the church — Father General calmly and carefully reminds us, God is still there, working in their lives.

He reframes the entire issue: instead of a problem with young people ignoring God, a problem for us to fix in them, we have instead a question: what is God up to here? This question changes the stakes and challenges our presumptions. It asks us, point-blank, “Do I really believe that God has stopped working with these people? That God is doing nothing in their hearts when they challenge and question the Church?” Operating from a distinctly Ignatian paradigm, Fr. General argues that God is already there and active. Our task: (and I’m paraphrasing) shut up and listen!  Pay attention to what God is already doing if you want to know what God needs us to do. God has not been idle with the youth.

That is one heck of a challenge. I asked Tom if he would be comfortable challenging his local clergy, and he said he wasn’t sure they really wanted to hear what he thought. Whether or not that perception is accurate, the fact that it exists – and in a young man committed enough to travel halfway around the world and sleep on floors in order to make a pilgrimage and see the pope – should be giving lots of us professionally religious people many sleepless nights.

I had the opportunity to interview Fr. General for The Jesuit Post, and talk to him especially about the Society of Jesus’ approach to working with young people in today’s world. A number of times during the interview, he posed the challenge this way: how do we enter the lives of the young, “how to find God in the hearts of the young, even those who don’t come to Church, and even those who don’t even believe in Christ.”

This challenge will require courage from our youth and it requires humility and flexibility from “the old guard.”  Perhaps my concerns and the concerns of Catholics in their 40s, 50s and beyond are simply not the concerns of most of our young people. We could use a whole lot more of “shutting up and listening.”  I sincerely hope that WYD leaves all of us, especially church leaders, with many more questions than answers, and more desire for, if not more skill at, finding God in the hearts of the young. Frankly, that may be the whole point.