“Young man, I say to you, arise!”
With these words from Luke’s Gospel, with which Jesus restored the widow’s son to life, Pope Francis sets a resolutely Christocentric theme for perhaps the most heartfelt and personal intervention of his papacy so far.
Christus Vivit (Christ is Alive!), his Apostolic Exhortation addressed “to Young People and the Entire People of God” is the work of a Pope who shows profound concern for the dramatic and unsettling environment in which young people find themselves.
And indeed, there is much to be aware of and concerned about. Family disintegration and mental health conditions among the young are increasingly normalised in western countries, against a cultural background in which, as Francis puts it “a certain kind of advertising teaches young people to be perpetually dissatisfied”.
And this is to say nothing of the truly dire experiences of many young people in the developing World, who bear the consequences of a global consumerist order “in which young people themselves end up being discarded.”
Francis encourages the renewal of Catholic schools, pastoral planning and official Youth Ministry. But his response to the needs and anxieties of the young does not stop there. His preoccupation in this emotional exhortation is simply Christ, the living and “ever young” Saviour, whose love “is greater than all our problems, frailties and flaws” and who alone can restore “the true youthfulness of a World grown old”.
Last October’s Synod on Young People had submitted a dense and at times opaque final document for the Holy Father’s consideration. Francis has evidently reflected deeply on its themes, quoting several passages and giving a qualified approval to the demands for the Church to “appreciate the vision, but also the criticisms, of young people”.
He makes a challenging and perhaps controversial call for the Church to avoid giving the impression of “battling obsessively over two or three issues” – the remedy for which is to “regain her humility and simply listen, recognizing that what others have to say can help her better understand the Gospel.”
But if these are liable to become the most debated passages of the Exhortation, the truly striking chapters are those in which the Holy Father speaks with the directness and simplicity which are his greatest strengths. He addresses young people with what he calls his “Great Message:” the Love of God the Father, made visible in the new life won by Christ.
This brief section of the Exhortation could serve as a model text for anyone called to minister to and evangelise the young. Pope Francis insists – as his immediate predecessors have done – on the centrality of kerygma, the announcement of salvation through Christ, and he presents a version of this ancient form of preaching, composed with exceptional sensitivity to the situation of many young people today.
Starting from the crisis of fatherhood in the West, he proclaims the “absolute certainty” of the Fatherhood of God, respectful of freedom but steadfast in gentle strength.
He then develops his theme by proclaiming the infinite value of each individual to God, expressed concretely through the sacrifice of Christ. Here the Pope surely intends to point the way to addressing the feelings of anxiety, sadness and shame which afflict many young people today, young women in particular. For Francis, the answer is found, not simply in a therapeutic model, but in the ages-old formula of Scripture, “you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you” (Is 43:4).
While his preaching to young people is characterized by a touching tenderness, in the following chapters, Francis turns his attention quite forcefully to the promoters of the “False Cult of Youth” whose priority is to uproot the young from the “spiritual and human riches of past generations” purely so that they themselves can “reign unopposed”.
For Francis, these “masters of manipulation” are characterised above all by the superficiality of the ideology which they promote. And indeed, it is not difficult to identify the work of such ideologues today, especially in ways that sidestep parental authority, exposing ever younger children to increasingly addictive and indoctrinating forms of entertainment.
The Holy Father makes it clear he does not intend to provide a practical guide to organising youth ministry. Rather, he calls on the Church to follow those approaches which have proved fruitful, regardless of whether they are described by pundits as “conservative” “traditional” or “progressive”.
In particular, Francis draws attention to the affinity of young people today for silence. In this, he once again draws our attention to Christ, alive and giving life, who can be encountered “in that interior silence in which we can perceive [his] gaze and hear his call” – for instance, in Eucharistic Adoration.
“Christ is alive and he wants you to be alive!” These opening words of Christus Vivit are Pope Francis’s message for young people, and for those entrusted with their pastoral care. His insistence on the centrality of Christ – and in particular of his power to bring new life in a situation which appears hopeless – is an urgent and fitting call to the Church to raise her eyes to the One who is most essential to her mission.
John Hayward works for the Catholic Truth Society, official publishers to the Holy See. A copy of Christus Vivit can be ordered from CTS here.