VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ summary document on last year’s synod on youth is a “Magna Carta of youth ministry and vocations” aimed at helping young people to realize that Christ does not belong to the past but the present and the future.
These were the words of Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, speaking to reporters at this morning’s publication of Christus Vivit (Christ Is Alive) — Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation on last October’s youth synod in Rome.
In the document, which runs to almost 35,000 words and 299 paragraphs, the Holy Father encourages young people to live lives of holiness, “dream great things” and to listen to the wisdom of the elderly.
He also urges the Church to heed the concerns of young people, shun clericalism and to be neither encased in the past nor accepting of all the world has to offer.
In the document that was published on the 14th anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II’s death, Pope Francis explains that he has allowed himself to be “inspired by the wealth of reflections and conversations” that took place during the synod, whose theme was “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment.”
The Pope begins the nine-chapter document by saying that he “would like to say to every young Christian” that “Christ is alive, and he wants you to be alive!”
He stresses that Jesus is “ever young” and asks 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 he also asks that she not succumb to the temptation of thinking she is young because she accepts everything the world offers.
“The Church should not be excessively caught up in herself,” he continues, but instead reflect on Christ, which means “humbly acknowledging that some things concretely need to change.”
He notes young people want a Church that “listens more” and for the Church to “regain her humility” and not always be “on the defensive.” Young people, he says, “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.” The document does not specify what those issues were.
Two areas that were given attention in the synod’s final document — women and homosexuality — hardly figure in the exhortation. The Pope says the Church needs to be “attentive” to women’s “legitimate claims” for “greater justice and equality, but stops short of “agreeing with everything some feminist groups propose.”
On homosexuality, the Pope mentions it only once, in contrast to the final document, which controversially called for a “deeper anthropological, theological and pastoral” study of sexual orientation.
Sexual morality, he says, “often tends to be a source of incomprehension and alienation from the Church, inasmuch as she is viewed as a place of judgment and condemnation.” Nonetheless, the Pope adds, “young people also express an explicit desire to discuss questions concerning the difference between male and female identity, reciprocity between men and women, and homosexuality.”
“The synod sought to renew the Church’s commitment against all discrimination and violence on sexual grounds,” the Pope continues. “That is the response of a Church that stays young and lets herself be challenged and spurred by the sensitivities of young people.”
The Pope goes on to recall the “Yes” of Mary and the Church’s “young saints,” such as Sebastian, Francis of Assisi and Joan of Arc, before describing young people not only as the “future of our world” but also as those “helping to enrich it.”
He draws attention to vulnerable young people caught up in war, conflict and exploitation, adding that the “worst thing we can do is adopt that worldly spirit” that anesthetizes young people with “messages, with other distractions, with trivial pursuits.”
Harmful Ideological Colonization
The Holy Father says “ideological colonization” — where aid is tied to Western secular values — is “especially harmful” to the young. And in a section on “desires, hurts and longings,” the Pope remarks that “in a world that constantly exalts sexuality, maintaining a healthy relationship with one’s body and a serene affective life is not easy.”
He goes on to warn about the “digital world,” the “dark web,” “cyberbullying” and “closed circuits” that “facilitate the spread of fake news and false information, fomenting prejudice and hate.” He also warns against pornography that “distort[s] a young person’s perception of human sexuality.”
The Pope uses online language in the text, referring to Mary as an “influencer,” but he also brings out positive aspects of the digital world, saying it can be an “extraordinary opportunity for dialogue, encounter and exchange.”
Elsewhere, he remembers young people who “become pregnant, the scourge of abortion, the spread of HIV, various forms of addiction” as well as “the plight of street children without homes, families or economic resources.”
Turning to migration, he says migrants are “an epitome of our time,” recalling the many young people involved in the phenomenon before moving on to child abuse and the sin within the Church in this area. He says this “dark moment” can be an opportunity for a reform of “epoch-making significance” with the “help of the young people”; and at one point, he asks young people to “remind” a priest of the Gospel and to help him “hold to his course” if he has lost his way.
The fourth chapter highlights three “great truths” for young people: that God is love, who “loves you, never doubt this”; that Christ “saves you” without cost and is “greater than all our problems, frailties and flaws”; and that God “is alive,” not a figure from the past.
The Pope then turns his attention to the “paths of youth,” encouraging young people to encounter Jesus, “your best friend,” each day and grow in maturity by “seeking the Lord and keeping his word.” He proposes “paths of fraternity” and stresses that the lay vocation “is directed above all to charity within the family and to social and political charity.”
He urges youth to take part in social programs and to be “courageous missionaries” and witnesses to the Gospel “everywhere.” The Pope also stresses remembering history, valuing relationships with the elderly and delivers a warning against the “cult of youth,” where the “body is idolized and lusted after while whatever is not young is despised.” Roots are not “anchors chaining us,” he says, but “a fixed point from which we can grow and meet new challenges.”
A further chapter is dedicated to youth ministry, which he says “has to be synodal,” capable of “shaping a journey together,” and consisting of “outreach” and “growth.” (Like homosexuality, “synodality” was given unexpected emphasis in the synod’s final document but is only given a passing reference in the apostolic exhortation).
Young people, the Pope goes on, “need to be approached with the grammar of love, not by being preached at.” He warns against formation in which “only doctrinal and moral questions are dealt with.” The result, he says, is that “many young people get bored; they lose the fire of their encounter with Christ.”
‘Keep Running the Race’
Popular youth ministry is needed, the Pope says, that “tries to avoid imposing obstacles, rules, controls and obligatory structures on these young believers who are natural leaders in their neighborhoods and in other settings. We need only to accompany and encourage them.”
The Pope later says all those working with youth should regard them with “understanding” and avoid “constantly judging them or demanding of them a perfection beyond their years.”
He underscores the importance of a vocation to married, family and consecrated life.
The last chapter is dedicated to discernment. “Without the wisdom of discernment, we can easily become prey to every passing trend,” the Pope writes, adding that it is important “to encourage and accompany processes, without imposing our own road maps.”
The Pope ends with a wish: that young people “keep running the race,” as the Church “needs your momentum, your intuitions, your faith.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.