Pope Francis tells young people that 'Christ is Alive!' – but is the institution dying?
As is often the way with Vatican formality, Pope Francis has released his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation almost exactly six months since the end of the Synod meeting, and a year since his conversations with young people during the pre-synodal consolation. Christus Vivit (Christ is Alive) aims to be a response to the Vatican opening its doors to young people to talk about their place within the Church.
Roman Catholic bishops met in a general assembly in October 2018. The theme of the meeting was 'Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment' and the synod fathers were given the opportunity to hear from young people from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and even Christian denominations.
During this time, at an event called Per noi – unici, solidali, creativi (For us – uniqueness, solidarity and creativity), Pope Francis addressed the young people present and gave them a taste of the conversations that had been taking place amongst the clergy, 'experts' and 'auditors' present, as well as some of the key messages that he saw emerging from direct conversations with young people.
Some of the key quotes from Pope Francis' off-the-cuff speech in October (he forwent the use of his pre-prepared speech) have re-emerged as key lines in Christus Vivit. This suggests that even from the outset Pope Francis, and it is likely, several synod fathers, already had messages that they wished to convey to young Catholics. However, their first task was to listen, the second to discern, and now finally Pope Francis has opened the dialogue around
what it means to be a young person in the Catholic Church today.
Christus Vivit is not shy in its approach to and inquisition of the worlds in which young Catholics exist. However, one is not necessarily enthralled by the way that these ideas are portrayed. At the crux, Christus Vivit is still a formal Vatican document, and is presented in such a way so it is unlikely that 68 pages of black and white text will inspire a young person to '"remain online" with [Jesus]' (158).
That being said, the document covers a lot of ground in terms of the spiritual, social, political and self-development of young people. The first chapter begins with scripture, and points to young people and their demonstrations of faith in both the New and Old Testament, such as Joseph, Samuel, and even the returning-and-repenting prodigal son.
Chapter two also serves as a reminder that Jesus too fitted the 16-29-year-old young person category for a large part of his ministry. The document addresses some of the real-world problems that affect how young people
engage with the Church and their faith. A key feature of modernity that Pope Francis has returned to several times (most recently at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin in 2018 at the Synod in October) is the digital world, and how Christians interact with it.
He admits that it can be a fantastic tool for communication and even advocation, but that it is also a place of exploitation, fear and isolation. He returned to a line used at Per noi – unici, solidali, creativi in which he told young people to 'not let yourself be bought, do not be seduced, do not let yourselves be enslaved by ideological colonisations that put ideas into your head'. As well as this, Pope Francis reused an image from Advent in which the Virgin Mary is described as 'the "influencer" of God' (44).
It would have been almost impossible to have shirked an address of the abuse scandal that is rocking the Church. Pope Francis accepts that it is part of the reason that young people can become disillusioned with the Church.
At point 97 he says, 'The Synod reaffirms the firm commitment made to adopting rigorous preventative measures
intended to avoid the recurrence [of these crimes], starting with the selection and formation of those to whom tasks of responsibility and education will be entrusted.'
His response at this stage in the document stands out as rather formal and demonstrates an unwillingness to discuss it outside of the context of its own general meeting, which took place in February this year.
But the hundredth point of this document is something that perhaps the entire Christian community needed to hear: 'those who committed these horrible crimes are not the majority of priests, who carry out their ministry with fidelity and generosity. I ask young people to let themselves be inspired by this vast majority.'
Pope Francis, it seems, truly comes into his element during the segments of spiritual encouragement in this document. His tone takes a colloquial turn, asking the young people to 'pay attention to this' (118). He offers three important messages for young people to carry with them: the first, God loves you (112); the second, 'that Christ, out of love, sacrificed himself completely in order to save you' (118); and finally, that 'Christ is alive!' (124).
These simplistic, but powerful statements, Pope Francis asks young people to carry with them and to ask the Holy Spirit to continue renewing this message in their hearts. He gives an interesting and almost juvenile rationale for this. 'Why not? You have nothing to lose, and he can change your life, fill it with light and lead it along a better path' (131).
It is clear when reading this document that Pope Francis is prepared to come to the level of young people, to speak to them like young adults, to hear their concerns and to meet them where they are. He appears to have an innate understanding of some of the primary interests and concerns that young people have, from friendship to self-image and making a difference in a turbulent political world. Whether this is something that the rest of the Church understand remains to be seen.
Pope Francis is encouraging smaller, local communities to take the document and discern together how young people can become more active parts of their communities. A statement that has reoccurred throughout this year-long discussion is that young people are very much an equal part of what the Church wants to promote as a universal, equal, encouraging space. In discussions around the UK, talking to participants in Rome, young people say again and again that they want to be heard now. Pope Francis quotes this sentiment in the heart of Christus Vivit: 'We aren't the church of the future. We are enriching it now' (64).
There are big questions marks hanging over 'the church of the future', though. World Youth Day is often used as an indicator of the church's vitality and growth. However, the crowds at the latest world youth day in Panama were less than half the amount than were in Krakov in 2016. Granted, this may have been due to monetary factors. However for young people, their faith in a God or belief system just isn't being captured by what the church is offering. For some, the synod hasn't provided tangible changes and answers to some of the difficult questions and issues that alienate young people. The Jesus of Christus Vivit is not the person preaching from the pulpit. Until that is clear, it is likely that the young will continue to walk away.
Nina Mattiello Azadeh studied music and philosophy and was a Faith in Politics media intern in 2016. She has a keen interest in interfaith relations, social action and is a classical ballet dancer. Follow her on Twitter @Ninamataz