On March 25th, Pope Francis released Christus Vivit, “Christ is alive!” This post-synodal exhortation is addressed both to young people (16 to 30 year-olds) and the entire Church. Rich with inspirational quotes and practical suggestions, the document contains many insights about youth, for youth, and for those who minister to youth, while raising many important questions that need to be addressed.
A young person stands on two feet as adults do, but unlike adults, whose feet are parallel, he always has one foot forward, ready to set out, to spring ahead. Always racing onward. (140)
Pope Francis begins the document by highlighting young people in the Bible as well as in Church history, figures such as Joseph (son of Jacob), Ruth, and David to St. Sebastian, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thérèse of Liseiux. Young people have always played an important role in salvation history. Particular attention is given to Mary, who as a young woman said “yes” to Gabriel, and to Jesus himself: “It is important to recognize that Jesus was a young person. He gave his life when he was, in today’s terms, a young adult” (23).
“Youth is more than simply a period of time; it is a state of mind” (34). This is why the Church, over two thousand years old, can be considered “young”—and needs the help of young people to keep her that way. Francis compares the shallow and superficial ways culture can manipulate youth to the true happiness that only Christ can offer. “Dear young friends, do not let them exploit your youth to promote a shallow life that confuses beauty with appearances” (183). Young people are in danger of being isolated and exploited which makes relationships with older people a great benefit. The young generation needs older generations, and the older generations need them. “When young and old alike are open to the Holy Spirit, they make a wonderful combination” (192).
Dear young people, make the most of these years of your youth. Don’t observe life from a balcony. Don’t confuse happiness with an armchair, or live your life behind a screen… Take risks, even if it means making mistakes. Don’t go through life anesthetized or approach the world like tourists. Make a ruckus! (143)
One of the great legacies of this document may be the example Pope Francis gives of how to share the Good News with young people. He tells them to not be discouraged by their sins and failures. “The Lord’s love is greater than all our problems, frailties and flaws… Because the worst fall, and pay attention to this, the worst fall, the one that can ruin our lives, is when we stay down and do not allow ourselves to be helped up” (120). He encourages them to “keep your eyes on the outstretched arms of Christ crucified, let yourself be saved over and over again. And when you go to confess your sins, believe firmly in his mercy which frees you of your guilt” (123).
God has a plan for each young person, and Francis encourages all of them to seek the Lord to discover their particular vocation, both in work and in the call to marriage, holy orders, or religious life. Echoing discernment methods taught by St. Ignatius, he writes that this journey “should not start with wondering where we could make more money, or achieve greater recognition and social status. Nor even by asking what kind of work would be most pleasing to us… We need to ask: Do I know myself, quite apart from my illusions and emotions?” (285).
The real discernment focuses on how we might be able to serve the world and the Church. He proposes that identity should not be about answering, “who am I?”: “But the real question is: ‘For whom am I?’ Of course, you are for God” (286). The calling from God is not a demand, but it is “a calling from a friend” (287), and answering that call will bring more joy and happiness than anything the world can offer. To the Church he added, “Every form of pastoral activity, formation and spirituality should be seen in the light of our Christian vocation” (254).
To Those who Work with Youth
Each young person’s heart should thus be considered “holy ground, a bearer of the 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 is both encouraging and critical towards the way the Church has done “youth ministry.” His strongest critique is that the Church has not spent enough time listening to the voices and concerns of the young. “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” (41).
“Young people frequently fail to find in our usual programs a response to their concerns, their needs, their problems and issues” (202). Though there are opportunities where young people can have powerful experiences of God, “the only follow-up to this is a series of ‘formation’ meetings featuring talks about doctrinal and moral issues, the evils of today’s world, the Church, her social doctrine, chastity, marriage, birth control, and so on” (212). He acknowledges the importance of formation in doctrine and morality but says the two main goals of youth ministry should be developing the kerygma and growing in fraternal love.
He proposes an approach to youth ministry that is “popular,” by which he means “of the people” or “grassroots.” He frequently emphasizes, “young people themselves are the agents of ministry” (203). “Popular” youth ministry is more flexible, open to different styles and schedules, inclusive, listens to youth, and goes where “real” youth live.
Questions for the future
Christus Vivit lays out in broad strokes the situation of youth and youth ministry and encourages faith communities “to examine, respectfully and seriously, the situation of their young people, in order to find the most fitting ways of providing them with pastoral care” (103). There is a need for “new styles and strategies” as well as recognizing “those practices that have shown their value” (204). Christus Vivit raises many questions for those involved in this ministry here in the United States.
One unique contribution from the Church in the United States is decades of development in junior high and high school ministry. The target age in Christus Vivit is what we would traditionally call “young adults,” at least by many Anglos. In the Hispanic community, jovenes are considered from 16-29 years old, and this is not uncommon in the rest of the world. So if Christus Vivit was written about young people in late teenage years and their twenties, how might its principles be applied to those in their early teens?
Another strong component in the U.S. is the active role of lay ecclesial ministers, both volunteer and professional. Francis encourages this, writing that in addition to priests and those in consecrated life, “the laity should also be empowered to take on such a role (of mentoring young people). All such mentors should benefit from being well-formed, and engage in ongoing formation” (246). In light of what has been learned from the Synod, what should that formation look like? What elements are working and what needs to change?
In 1997, the US Bishops published, Sons and Daughters of the Light: A Pastoral Plan for Ministry with Young Adults. However, young adult ministry is frequently under-developed. One would hope this document provides young adult ministers with new insights and language to rejuvenate and re-focus that ministry. What might a “popular” young adult ministry look like in the United States?
Catholic schools are an important part of the history of Catholicism in the US. Francis writes, “Schools are in urgent need of self-criticism, if we consider the results of their pastoral outreach” (221). He adds, “Catholic schools remain essential places for the evangelization of the young” (222). While this is not a new conversation within this country, how might the words of Pope Francis help Catholic elementary and high schools, and universities be more effective in fostering discipleship?
Many Catholic parishes and dioceses also have well established programs of faith formation. In light of Francis’ negativity toward programs that are overly dogmatic or moralistic, what is the proper place of catechesis in youth and young adult ministry? What models of kerymatic catechesis have proven themselves successful?
One might read these questions and assume the document gives more questions than answers. Rather, the document initiates a timely conversation. Now is the time to not be afraid, to ask difficult questions, and turn away from “business as usual” so that the Church—both young and older together—can boldly proclaim to the world, “Christ is alive!”
Dr. Bob Rice is an internationally known speaker, acclaimed musician, and innovative writer. He is Professor of Catechetics and the Director of the Masters of Arts in Catechetics and Evangelization at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has a PhD in Theology from Liverpool Hope University where he researched Catholic youth and evangelization.
This article originally appeared on pages 34-35 of the printed edition.