We Want to Convert the Young People to Christ
What passing novelty of ours can match the eternal newness of Jesus?
At his very last World Youth Day appearance in 2002, Pope St. John Paul II — who, for all his years and infirmity remained forever young — reminded hundreds of thousands of young people who had come to Toronto to celebrate their faith that, in the words of Jesus, “You are the salt of the earth. … You are the light of the world.”
It was the ninth such event since he had first entrusted the young with the joy and the challenge of carrying the message of Christ to the world. When the idea of World Youth Day first came to him in 1985, he envisioned it in precise Christocentric terms. He was determined not to leave Christ out of the mix, to relegate him to the margins of human experience. “I imagined a powerful moment,” he said, “in which the young people of the world could meet Christ, who is eternally young, and could learn from him how to be bearers of the Gospel to other young people.”
In charging them with the Great Commission, the Pope expected nothing less than the same zeal that fired the first generation of apostles and priests. And thus he spoke to them about Jesus Christ, true God and true man, whose mission was nothing less than to rescue and redeem a fallen world. He emphasized that peace and joy, the fulfillment of their dreams, would not be the result of “possessing, but of being. And being is affirmed,” he went on, “through knowing a Person and through living according to his teaching.”
Christ, who is eternally young, will bring all things new simply by bringing himself. Why would we not want to communicate that insight to the many thousands of young people who come to World Youth Day, who hunger and thirst for truth, for the God who is truth? Do the young not long to be told new things? What passing novelty of ours can match the eternal newness of Christ? There can be no greater injustice to the young than to deprive them of Christ — to appeal to the deepest desires of their heart, yet never speak the name of Jesus. It is the worst sort of sin.
If we do not speak of Christ, especially to the young; if we refuse in any way to draw them to Christ, then we are betraying Christ and the God who sent him.
“I think that I could no longer live,” said a great 19th-century writer by the name of Johann Mohler, “if I no longer heard him speak.”
Pope Francis: ‘Open Your Heart to Jesus’
Exactly 10 years ago this month Pope Francis attended his first World Youth Day. He’d been pope for only a short time and like the two giants before him — John Paul and Benedict — he too sought to ignite something of the same spirit that had animated all the previous gatherings. And so Francis summoned the young to Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 2013, and when they all showed up, he quoted Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was once asked, “Where does one begin to change the Church for the better?” Her answer became his own, which he then urged everyone to adopt as their own as well: “You and I are the starting point!”
She knew exactly where to start, said the Pope to the young Catholics of Brazil. She evinced a great determination throughout her life, which was to draw others to Christ, especially in his most doleful disguise — the marginalized and the poor, the unloved and the unlovely.
“And I make her words my own,” said Pope Francis, who continued:
And I say to you: Shall we begin? Where? With you and me! Each one of you, once again in silence, ask yourself: If I must begin with myself, where exactly do I start? Each one of you, open his or her heart, so that Jesus may tell you where to start.
It all turns on Jesus, doesn’t it? He is the linchpin, the very One without whom no good will ever come. Everything that happens, all the joy and peace we so long to have, can only take place within the horizon of Christ, encompassed by the event of his coming among us.
“The Word was made flesh,” writes Luigi Giussani. “Not only had Being (Beauty, Truth) not disdained to clothe its perfection in flesh, and not only had it not disdained to bear the toils of this human life, but it had come to die for us …”
Christ in Eclipse
Isn’t this the whole story? But notice how, in the years since Rio, the message appears to have been somehow muted. So that now, 10 years later, the story is no longer quite the same. Because Christ, who, from the beginning, had always been the star of the show, seems no longer at the center of its telling.
How can that be? I don’t exactly know, but that it has happened cannot be in dispute. Look no further than the recent pronouncement made by Bishop Américo Aguiar, who is the key player in putting on this year’s World Youth Day, scheduled to begin Aug. 1 in Lisbon, where he is an auxiliary bishop. And, yes, one of 21 soon-to-be-installed cardinals, whose installation will take place in Rome at the end of September.
“We don’t want to convert the young people to Christ or to the Church or to anything like that,” he said in an interview. So, how does a statement like that, however many nuances you add to it, square with the marching orders of Christianity?
We want it to be normal for a young Catholic Christian to say and bear witness to who he is, or for a young Muslim, Jew, or of another religion to also have no problem saying who he is and bearing witness to it, or for a young person who has no religion and feel welcome and to perhaps not feel strange for thinking in a different way.
What, then, was the point of Christ coming among us? Was he only kidding when, in speaking to his Father, he said, “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art is me, and I in thee; that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17: 21)?
How can we expect the world to believe anything about Christ if we (and the bishops among us) shrink from speaking his name? Diversity is all very well, but not if it doesn’t reach beyond itself, yearning amid all its otherness, for a unity only Jesus Christ can bring.