By Edgardo Juarez
On the Feast of the Annunciation, Pope Francis signed his most recent Apostolic Exhortation, Christus Vivit, a document addressed to young people and to the entire people of God.
He begins the exhortation by stating, “Christ is Alive! He is our hope, and in a wonderful way he brings youth to our world, everything he touches becomes young, new, full of life.” (CV, 1).
The Holy Father sets the tone of true encounter and accompaniment in the opening sentences of this historic Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. The text was published on April 2, on the memorial of the death of Pope St. John Paul II. The document is the fruit of the last Ordinary Synod of Bishops whose focus was on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. The Pope explains that he allowed himself to “be inspired by the wealth of reflections and conversations that emerged from last year’s Synod,” (CV, 4). He provides a summary of these proposals, but also offers a continuation of his vision for the evangelization of the Church.
The title of the document, Christus Vivit, which means “Christ is Alive,” highlights Pope Francis’s desire to have Jesus at the center of one’s life and in the ministry with young people. The title itself is a statement that despite the challenges the Church faces today, Christ continues to be alive among us, especially in the lives of youth. Throughout the exhortation, he constantly invites the young to an encounter and friendship with Jesus. Pope Francis states, “No matter how much you live the experiences of these years of your youth, you will never know their deepest and fullest meaning unless you encounter each day your best friend, the friend who is Jesus” (CV, 150). He Invites young people to establish and live in friendship with Christ. In the first two chapters, the Pope presents the witness of youths whom God called throughout salvation history, with Jesus and Mary center-stage to show how often the Scriptures speak of young people. He brings up the examples of Saint Sebastian, Saint Joan of Arc, Saint Therese and of the Child Jesus to encourage an encounter with Christ (CV, 229).
He reminds us that Jesus is “young among the young in order to be an example for the young and to consecrate them to the Lord.” For this reason, the Synod said that “youth is an original and stimulating stage of life, which Jesus himself experienced, thereby sanctifying it” (CV, 22). Furthermore, Pope Francis states that “Jesus, in the years of his youth, was ‘training,’ being prepared to carry out the Father’s plan. His adolescence and his youth set him on the path to that sublime mission.” Francis is personally inviting all young people to discern God’s call in their life and prepare to respond to it as Jesus did. In fact, he observes, “Jesus was a youth. He gave His life at an age considered today as the age of a young adult. He began His public mission in the fullness of His youth . . . He was truly one of you . . . All young people can find themselves in Jesus.” (CV, 33).
I, too, believe this is an invitation to the greater Church, those adults around young people, especially those in leadership positions to actively provide intentional mentorship and accompaniment to equip the young to respond to God’s mission. When it comes to growth in the faith, Pope Francis again points to the kerygma. He states that the path for growth includes formation that develops “the foundational experience of encounter with God through Jesus’ death and resurrection” (CV, 213). The Pope encourages us to make this formation experiential, rather than a process of indoctrination. He points to a path of ongoing encounter and journey with Jesus Christ.
Pope Francis also speaks of the youth of the Church and calls for a Church that is open to constant renewal. He writes, “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. The Church is young when she shows herself capable of constantly returning to her source (CV, 35). As we look to re-engage the young people that have left the Church and the future generations, we as the Body of Christ must have courage to respond to the signs of the times with the Gospel. One of the first steps of the renewal of the Church is to attentively listen with an open heart to voices of the young. We must have honest conversations with the young people of communities. The Exhortation recognizes that there are young people who feel the presence of the Church “a nuisance, even an irritant.” This attitude has its roots “in serious and understandable reasons: sexual and financial scandals; a clergy ill-prepared to engage effectively with the sensitivities of the young;… the passive role assigned to the young within the Christian community; the Church’s difficulty in explaining her doctrine and ethical positions to contemporary society” (40). There are young people who “want a Church that listens more, that does more than simply condemn the world. They do not want to see a Church that is silent and afraid to speak, but neither one that is always battling obsessively over two or three issues. 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” (CV, 41). Pope Francis challenges us to see with the eyes of Jesus, to feel with the heart of Jesus and to walk in the footsteps of Jesus when accompanying the youth and young adults of our communities. Pope Francis writes, “Young people are not meant to become discouraged; they are meant to dream great things, to seek vast horizons, to aim higher, to take on the world, to accept challenges and to offer the best of themselves to the building of something better” (CV, 15).
In this exhortation Pope Francis explicitly addresses the pastoral care provided through youth ministry in Chapter 7. The Pope explains that youth ministry has been affected by social and cultural changes and “young people frequently fail to find in our usual programs a response to their concerns, their needs, their problems and issues” ( CV, 202). The young people themselves “are agents of youth ministry. Certainly, they need to be helped and guided, but at the same time left free to develop new approaches, with creativity and a certain audacity” young people must be encouraged to “use their insight, ingenuity and knowledge to address the issues and concerns of other young people in their own language” (CV, 203). The Pope states that youth ministry requires two courses of action: outreach and growth (CV, 209). When it comes to outreach, he describes the language that must be used with young people. He says, “We need to use above all the language of closeness, the language of generous, relational and existential love that touches the heart, impacts life, and awakes hope and desires. Young people need to be approached with the grammar of love, not by being preached at (CV, 211). Youth ministry needs to be flexible, and it is necessary to invite “young people to events or occasions that provide an opportunity not only for learning, but also for conversing, celebrating, singing, listening to real stories and experiencing a shared encounter with the living God” (204). What is most important, though, “is that each young person can be daring enough to sow the seed of the message on that fertile terrain that is the heart of another young person” (210). Any educational project or path of growth for young people “must certainly include formation in Christian doctrine and morality,” that must be centered on the kerygma, “the foundational experience of encounter with God through Jesus’ death and resurrection,” and on “growth in fraternal love, community life and service” (213).
The Exhortation concludes with “a wish” from Pope Francis: “Dear young people, my joyful hope is to see you keep running the race before you, outstripping all those who are slow or fearful. Keep running, “attracted by the face of Christ, whom we love so much, whom we adore in the Holy Eucharist and acknowledge in the flesh of our suffering brothers and sisters. The Church needs your momentum, your intuitions, your faith… And when you arrive where we have not yet reached, have the patience to wait for us.”
You can access the full exhortation online at www.vatican.va under Apostolic Exhortations. Confident that the Spirit of the Lord guides us, let us go forth to encounter the young people of our communities to give them hope. They are the “now” of God.
Edgardo Juarez is the Director of the Diocesan Office of Ministry with Young Catholics