Pope urges young people not to abandon the church

ROME—The Vatican today published a long but inspiring letter from Pope Francis called “Christ Is Alive.” In it, he speaks first of all “to young people” but also “to the entire people of God, pastors and faithful alike, since all of us are challenged and urged to reflect both on the young and for the young.”

Commenting on the painful wounds of the abuse crisis that has been so disheartening to young Catholics, Pope Francis urges them not to abandon “our Mother when she is wounded, but stand beside her, so that she can summon up all her strength and all her ability to begin ever anew.” He reminded them that “in the midst of this tragedy, which rightly pains us, the Lord Jesus, who never abandons his Church, offers her the strength and the means to set out on a new path.”

This dark moment, he writes, with the help of young people “can truly be an opportunity for a reform of epoch-making significance, opening us to a new Pentecost and inaugurating a new stage of purification and change capable of renewing the Church’s youth.”

Pope Francis wrote that the exhortation was “inspired by the wealth of reflections and conversations” of last October’s Synod on Young People and sought to incorporate in it synod proposals that he considered “more significant” as well as other input from young people, including those who are not believers. He signed the document at the Marian shrine of Loreto in Italy on March 25, as a reminder that Mary was a young teenager when she responded to God’s call and so helped to change human history.

Pope Francis opens the 210-page letter—officially known as a “post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation”—by reminding Christian young people that “Christ is alive! He is our hope, and in a wonderful way he brings youth to our world.”

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the secretary general of the synod, presented the letter at a 90-minute press conference in the Vatican on April 2 and described it as “the Magna Carta” of the church’s work with and for young people. He said it recognized the vastly different situations that young people are living in different parts of the world.

Cardinal Baldisseri emphasized the Christological dimension of the text and said the pope’s “fundamental message” to young people is that “Jesus Christ does not belong only to the past but also to the present and the future because He is the eternal and living One” and that “every generation of believers discovers Christ as a peer and a companion.”

The cardinal noted that the letter is written in the colloquial style that Francis uses in his homilies and in his dialogue with people and is therefore easy to understand. In the exhortation, the cardinal said that Pope Francis draws on the documents of the Second Vatican Council; his own writings and talks as pope, including those at the World Youth Days; as well as documents from the U.S. bishops and other bishops’ conferences, the writings of Sts. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Óscar Romero; and the work of Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan and Pedro Arrupe, S.J.

Responding to questions from reporters that noted some discrepancies between the exhortation and the synod’s final document, like the absence of the term “zero tolerance” and a diminished reflection on the subject of homosexuality and the role of women, the cardinal explained that the letter should be read in conjunction with that final document.

In the nine chapters and 292 paragraphs of the text, Pope Francis touches the vast range of subjects that were raised in the synod and in its final document. In the first chapter, he explains what is said about young people in the Bible and presents some key young figures, including Joseph, Samuel, David and Ruth.

He discusses in Chapter 2 “the youthful aspects of Jesus’ life” and says that the church’s pastors and youth ministers should not ignore these, “lest we create projects that isolate young people from their family and the larger community.” Because of Christ the church is young, Francis says, so “let us ask the Lord to free the church from those who would make her grow old, encase here in past, hold her back or keep her at a standstill.”

But he cautions against the temptation “of thinking she is young because she accepts everything the world offers her.”

“We must dare to be different,” Pope Francis says, “to point to ideals other than those of this world, testifying to the beauty of generosity, service, purity, perseverance, forgiveness, fidelity to our personal vocation.”

He insists that the figure of Jesus be presented “in an attractive and effective way” and says “the church should above all reflect Jesus Christ” and acknowledge that “some things concretely need to change.”

He recognizes that some young people feel the presence of the church as “a nuisance and even an irritant” because of sexual and financial scandals, a clergy that is not sensitive to the young and “her doctrinal and ethical positions.” He says young people want “a church that listens more, that does more than simply condemn,” a church “that needs to regain her humility” and is “attentive to the legitimate claims of women” while “not agreeing with everything that some feminist groups propose.”

In Chapter 3, Francis emphasizes that young people are not simply the future of the church and the world but “the present.” Instead of seeing problems and failings of young people, the pope says pastors and youth ministers should have the ability “to discern pathways where others see walls, to recognize potential where others see only peril.”

Pope Francis draws attention to the many difficult situations in which young people live because of war, exploitation, organized crime, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and rape or as victims of ideologies and notes that many young people end as “individualists, hostile and distrustful of others.” They “become easy targets for the brutal and destructive strategies of political groups or economic powers.” Pope Francis urges young people to learn to weep for the tragedies of their peers and counsels others in the church to do likewise.

He writes also about the impact of the digital world on young people, its positive contribution but also negative effects through cyberbullying, the dark web and “digital migration” that encourages young people to “withdraw from their families and cultural and religious values” and enter “a world of loneliness.”

Not surprisingly, he paid considerable attention to the many young people who have become migrants because of war, poverty and the effects of climate change. He worried over their vulnerability in the face of “unscrupulous traffickers” of drugs, arms and human beings. He notes, too, how migration “causes fear and alarm” in host countries, “which is often fomented and exploited for political ends” and can lead to a “xenophobic mentality.”

He devotes a significant part of the letter to the abuse scandal in the church—“the abuse of power, the abuse of conscience, sexual and financial abuse.” He says, “The Synod reaffirms the firm commitment made to adopting rigorous preventative measures intended to avoid the recurrence [of these crimes], starting with the selection and formation of those to whom tasks of responsibility and education will be entrusted.”

Pope Francis thanks “those who had the courage to report the evil they experienced.” He says, “They help the church to acknowledge what happened and the need to respond decisively.” He reminds the young people that, “thank God, those who committed these horrible crimes are not the majority of priests, who carry out their ministry with fidelity and generosity.”

He urges the young “to let themselves be inspired by this vast majority.” He also asks them, “If you see a priest at risk, because he has lost the joy of his ministry, or seeks affective compensation, or is taking the wrong path, remind him of his commitment to God and his people, remind him of the Gospel and urge him to hold to his course. In this way, you will contribute greatly to something fundamental: preventing these atrocities from being repeated.”

Aware that the abuse question is being given vast coverage in the media and elsewhere, Pope Francis counsels young people that the church’s “long history is not without its shadows. Our sins are before the eyes of everyone; they appear all too clearly in the lines on the age-old face of the Church, our Mother and Teacher. For two thousand years she has advanced on her pilgrim way, sharing ‘the joys and the hopes, the grief and anguish’ of all humanity.

“She has made this journey as she is, without cosmetic surgery of any kind. She is not afraid to reveal the sins of her members, which some try at times to hide, before the burning light of the word of the Gospel, which cleanses and purifies. Nor does she stop reciting each day, in shame: ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, in your kindness… my sin is always before me.’”

Pope Francis recalled the words of St. Óscar Romero: “Christianity is not a collection of truths to be believed, rules to be followed or prohibitions…. Christianity is a person who loved me immensely, who demands and asks for my love. Christianity is Christ.”

He encouraged young people to develop their friendship with Christ and “to go beyond small groups and build social friendship, where everyone works for the common good.” He called them to be “courageous missionaries.”

He urged them not to ignore or abandon their roots in their faith and families and not to allow themselves to be taken in by the manipulators of the cult of youth but to be open to the wisdom of previous generations.

The pope’s letter is long and will require time, study and discussion, but it provides solid guidance to young people for their future lives and to the church, its pastors and youth ministers by suggesting ways to involve and assist young people in the following of Christ.

This article also appeared in print, under the headline “Pope Francis urges young people not to abandon the church,” in the April 29, 2019 issue.

By Gerard O’Connell   |   America the Jesuit Review