Christ is alive, and wants to draw young people to the center of a young Church. This is Pope Francis’ message in the apostolic exhortation he released yesterday, Christus vivit.
The exhortation is long, probably too long for a document addressed to young people. It is packed, however, with beautiful reflections on the dignity of youth, an exhortation to holiness and activism, and a call to remember what is most important, that God is love and Christ is alive.
Here are three takeaways:
God is young
“Jesus does not teach you, young people, from afar or from without, but from within your very youth, a youth he shares with you” (31).
Jesus’ youth is precisely the place young people can encounter him and be affirmed in their desires for a new world. Francis writes, “Jesus showed profound compassion for the weakest, especially the poor, the sick, sinners and the excluded. He had the courage to confront the religious and political authorities of his time; he knew what it was to feel misunderstood and rejected; he experienced the fear of suffering and he knew the frailty of the Passion. He turned his gaze to the future, entrusting himself into the Father’s safe hands in the strength of the Spirit. In Jesus, all the young can see themselves.”
Young people need to be reminded of the youth of Christ in a Church that can too easily become stale with age. Jesus “is the true youthfulness of a world grown old,” Pope Francis says.
Young people around the world are decrying a world “grown old” with injustice, hatred, and division. They seek something new, a “more just and fraternal world.” Francis urges them not to let their disillusionment fall into despair: “With him at our side, we can drink from the true wellspring that keeps alive all our dreams, our projects, our great ideals, while impelling us to proclaim what makes life truly worthwhile.”
Young people today have a desire for authenticity. Like Jesus, they are willing to confront hypocrisy in political and social institutions as well as religious ones. Like Jesus, they desire communities that are attentive to the weak and marginalized. Pope Francis exhorts young people to see that these desires and qualities can be the very place they encounter Jesus, alive in their life.
The Church is (supposed to be) young
“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.”
In the pre-synod meeting, and in their interventions at the Synod, young people asked for a humble church that is honest about its failures, authentic, and preaches Jesus. Francis validates much of their concern in this document. He also recalls that the Church has important lessons that young people must hear if they are to be fully themselves.
The Holy Father explains that many young people today ask “expressly to be left alone” by the church, and sometimes for “understandable reasons”.
Their deeper desire, however, is for a better Church. Young people want a Church that does more than simply condemn the world or one that is “battling obsessively over two or three issues.” In order to be credible to young people, “there are times when she needs to regain her humility and simply listen, recognizing that what others have to say can provide some light to help her better understand the Gospel.”
The Pope explicitly mentions that young people urge the Church to root out any form of injustice, especially against women. The Church can “look back on history and acknowledge a fair share of male authoritarianism, domination, various forms of enslavement, abuse and sexist violence.” The living and true Church “stays young and lets herself be challenged and spurred by the sensitivities of young people.”
Francis also notes that the Church has much to teach young people, a common refrain at the 2018 Synod. In order to do so, The Church “should not be excessively caught up in herself but instead, and above all, reflect Jesus Christ, “her first love.”
Let us ask the Lord to free the Church from those who would make her grow old, encase her in the past, hold her back or keep her at a standstill. But let us also ask him to free her from another temptation: that of thinking she is young because she accepts everything the world offers her, thinking that she is renewed because she sets her message aside and acts like everybody else. 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.
Youth is a fragile gift
“Each young person’s heart should thus be considered “holy ground”, a bearer of seeds of divine life, before which we must “take off our shoes” in order to draw near and enter more deeply into the Mystery” (67).
Francis writes with great respect for young people and their capacity to call the Church to holiness. But he also warns that young people can be victims of harsh ideologies and a “world in crisis.” Detailing problems of addiction, war, trafficking, and other forms of violence Francis writes: “Many young people are taken in by ideologies, used and exploited as cannon fodder or a strike force to destroy, terrify or ridicule others.”
He warns us not to let the “whole apparatus of communications, advertising and social networking” lead us to obsession with consumerism. He encourages young people to live their unique and beautiful identity as children of God: “Ask the help of the Holy Spirit and confidently aim for the great goal of holiness. In this way, you will not be a photocopy. You will be fully yourself.”
Young people have a special role in ending and healing from abuse in the Church, Francis writes. This difficult moment in the Church can be an “opportunity for a reform of epoch-making significance,” but “not without the valuable help of the young.” They have a “great capacity to bring about renewal, to urge and demand consistent witness, to keep dreaming and coming up with new ideas.”
For Francis, young people above all can call the world and the Church to holiness:
Young people can help keep her young. They can stop her from becoming corrupt; they can keep her moving forward, prevent her from being proud and sectarian, help her to be poorer and to bear better witness, to take the side of the poor and the outcast, to fight for justice and humbly to let herself be challenged. Young people can offer the Church the beauty of youth… Young people are taking to the streets! You are the ones who hold the future! Through you, the future enters into the world.