Pope Francis’ Letter to Youth: It’s All About the Encounter With Christ

COMMENTARY: The dominant pastoral advice of Christus Vivit concerns mistakes to avoid rather than indications of paths to pursue.

Christus Vivit was released April 2.
Christus Vivit was released April 2. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

Christus Vivit (Christ Is Alive), the follow-up apostolic exhortation to the synod on youth held last October, is quite different from the previous exhortations of Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium and Amoris Laetitia.

It does not take up in any meaningful way the most contested topics of the synod — homosexuality and “synodality” itself. Its principal pastoral advice is to avoid extremes in ministry to young adults.

A distinctively Pope Francis theme is emphasized, the importance of young people listening to their elders and elders making room for young people. And like the synod itself, CV does not really lift up the success stories of the last two generations in the Church’s apostolates to young people.

At some 35,000 words, CV returns to a more normal length for papal documents. Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) and Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) were two of the three longest papal documents ever published, veritable magisterial behemoths. CV is written more like a long letter in the first person, a voice that appears in the first paragraph and is sustained throughout.

“Some time ago, a friend asked me what I see in a young person,” Pope Francis writes (139). “My response was that ‘I see someone who is searching for his own path, who wants to fly on his two feet, who faces the world and looks at the horizon with eyes full of the future, full of hope as well as illusions.’”

CV will be studied carefully by the enormous number of apostolates aimed at the pastoral care of youth and young adults — parish youth groups, campus ministry, Frassati groups for young men, etc.

Herewith some notable points.

  • The original language of CV is Spanish, not the customary Italian, which likely accounts for its more personal tone, drafted and published in the Holy Father’s mother tongue.
  • The dominant pastoral advice of CV is not to imprison young people in past models, but also not to pander to them. Obviously true, but it makes CV a largely negative document, warning about mistakes to avoid rather than indications of paths to pursue. “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,” writes Pope Francis (35). “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!”
  • Sexual morality, which was something of a flashpoint at the synod, is not treated in any great length, and there are no doctrinal innovations, as were attempted in Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis returns to a point he has stressed before, namely that the initial proclamation of the Gospel, the kerygma, and encounter with the Lord must take priority even over important doctrinal and catechetical matters. “Young people need to be approached with the grammar of love, not by being preached at,” Pope Francis writes (211). “We also have to give greater thought to ways of incarnating the kerygma in the language of today’s youth. … In some places, it happens that young people are helped to have a powerful experience of God, an encounter with Jesus that touched their hearts. But 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. As a result, many young people get bored; they lose the fire of their encounter with Christ and the joy of following him; many give up and others become downcast or negative. Rather than being too concerned with communicating a great deal of doctrine, let us first try to awaken and consolidate the great experiences that sustain the Christian life.”
  • CV notes that young people of great holiness play a prominent role in successful youth ministries and on campus. Pope Francis highlights several, with short paragraph summaries provided: St. Sebastian, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Joan of Arc, Blessed Andrew Phû Yên, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, St. Dominic Savio, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus (Little Flower), Blessed Ceferino Namuncurá, Blessed Isidore Bakanja, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Blessed Marcel Callo and Blessed Chiara Badano (51-62). It would be a fruitful project for a youth ministry simply to study the saints that Pope Francis proposes.
  • Pope Francis mentions Venerable Carlo Acutis as a model for our digital age. An Italian who died in 2006 at the age of 15, Carlo developed an impressive online catalogue of Eucharistic miracles. “Carlo was well aware that the whole apparatus of communications, advertising and social networking can be used to lull us, to make us addicted to consumerism and buying the latest thing on the market, obsessed with our free time, caught up in negativity,” Pope Francis writes (105). “Yet he knew how to use the new communications technology to transmit the Gospel, to communicate values and beauty.”
  • The digital section of CV is weaker for focusing on “consumerism” promoted by powerful “economic interests.” That is both true and a danger, but CV underplays the addictive danger of digital technology, the corrosive effect of social media on normal friendships, and the need for formation of even young children in resisting digital slavery — to say nothing of the scourge of pornography.
  • The moving words of Father Pedro Arrupe, the Jesuit father general from 1965 to 1983, are included as wise advice for the young: “Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”
  • Strangely enough, the most often-quoted words in youth ministry today are not included in CV, the words of Pope Benedict XVI in his inaugural homily as pope: “If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that he might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? … And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ — and you will find true life. Amen.”
  • Like the synod itself, CV largely sets aside the model and teaching of St. John Paul II. There are only two citations of his, out of 164 (Benedict XVI also has two). And John Paul’s landmark 1985 “Letter to the Youth of the World” is never mentioned, as it was never mentioned in the preparation for the synod. Papal addresses at World Youth Day are cited often, but the phenomenon of World Youth Day itself is not highlighted. CV continues the synod’s reluctance to acknowledge that the Church has a lot of recent, fruitful experience in the pastoral care of youth and young adults.
  •  For magisterial purposes, CV confirms that the apparently key concept of “synodality” has no fixed meaning, despite its prominence at the synod. Pope Francis writes (206) that “youth ministry has to be synodal; it should involve a ‘journeying together.’” “Synodality” has a certain historical meaning in Church governance; here it simply means working together and not conducting matters in an authoritarian manner. It has been reduced to “cooperation.”
  • A dominant theme of CV is the need for the different generations to keep in close contact. It is often spoke of in homey prose, like this passage, which could have been lifted from Disney’s Moana. Noting the synod intervention of a Samoan participant, who said that the Church is like a canoe “in which the elderly help to keep on course by judging the position of the stars, while the young keep rowing, imagining what waits for them ahead,” Pope Francis adds (201), “let us all climb aboard the same canoe and together seek a better world.”

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.