Pope Francis. Wikimedia Commons

He Calls Them to Go on the Offensive

He wants young people to be free, and he shows them the way (thus showing the adults, as well).
Giuseppe Frangi

Francis does not pay compliments to the young people. He doesn’t coddle them, nor does he indulge them. He does not want to win them over by making allowances. He is very direct, if necessary–as in August, when he met with some young people from the Diocese of Piacenza: “When a young person says to me: ‘These are difficult times, Father, we cannot do anything!’ Well! I send him or her to a psychiatrist!”

Not everyone took his comment well; a quick look on the Internet reveals many critical reactions, almost laying claim to the right to depression. But the Pope shuts the door on all of these interpretations. He has chosen not to make excuses. Being young is an opportunity, not a handicap, no matter the context in which one finds himself living. “Pessimistic Christians: how awful! You young people can’t and mustn’t be lacking in hope; hope is part of your being. A young person without hope is not young but has aged prematurely!” he said during his visit to Cagliari. And he explained that a young person without hope finds himself at the mercy of the “merchants of death,” who hover like vultures, ready to sell antidotes to sadness. “Please don’t sell your youth to these people who sell death! All of you know what I’m talking about!”

Because of this, the Pope hammers away at this point, inviting young people to be fully young, even in their behavior–to come out into the open, without hiding. Many times, in St. Peter’s Square, he has asked to hear their voice more loudly. In Brazil, he even invited them to “make noise.” He reminded the university students in Rome to be “more than mere spectators, ...protagonists.” “Please do not watch life go by from the balcony!” he exhorted, adding, “Mingle where the challenges are calling you to help carry life and development forward, in the struggle over human dignity, in the fight against poverty, in the battle for values, and in the many battles we encounter each day.”

“Don’t Put Yourselves at the Tail End”

Young people must not suffocate the aspiration to build a better world, because this aspiration is an integral part of youth. To this end, his words on the beach at Copacabana are beautiful: “Your young hearts want to build a better world.... Young people, please: don’t put yourselves at the tail end of history. Be active members! Go on the offensive! Play down the field....”

The Pope does not hide the fact that today, between the Church and young people, something isn’t working. With his always efficacious realism, he renamed Confirmation “the sacrament of farewell” while speaking to young people in Cagliari: “The sacrament of Confirmation–what is this sacrament called? Confirmation... No! Its name has changed: the ‘sacrament of farewell.’ They do this and then they leave the Church. Is this true or not? This is an experience of failure.” This happens because we forget that Christianity “is not an abstract science, but a living knowledge of Christ, a personal relationship with God who is love. One needs perhaps to insist more on formation in the faith lived as a relationship, in which one experiences the joy of being loved and able to love.” And young people are the ones who suffer this reduction of Christianity to a “correct” abstraction the most. So where can a “reemergence” start for them?

While meeting with young people for the Vigil of World Youth Day in Rio, Francis gave a very effective example. “I think that we can learn something from what has taken place in these days, of how we had to cancel, due to bad weather, this Vigil in the Campus Fidei, at Guaratiba. Is the Lord not telling us, perhaps, that we ourselves are the true field of faith, the true Campus Fidei, and not some geographical location? Yes, it is true–each one of us, each one of you, me, everyone!” The Lord does not call “the masses,” but He calls each person: “You, and you, and you, each one of you. Listen to what He is saying to you in your heart.”

Nothing Unfinished
And what does Jesus suggest to a young person of today? This is where Pope Francis enters onto paths that require a visible and concrete change of life. His is a clear, persuasive, and detailed appeal, that of a true father. It is the most striking aspect of this Pope, above all in relation to what we have (or better, have not) indicated to our children. It is the indication to be aware of the limit of which we are made, and therefore to follow those who, in their life, experience this awareness firsthand: the poor. This is a predilection that the Pope repeats constantly, but that he suggests in particular as a horizon for young people. It is not just a sociological attention, but an existential one–as he explained in the letter for World Youth Day in Krakow, the adjective “poor” in Greek has not only a material meaning, but also the meaning of “beggar.” Man is a beggar before God and “prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst and our own thirst.”

But the Pope does not leave things unfinished (in this, he is truly “father” to us fathers), and in the end he gets down to concrete prospects. His final exhortation, in that same letter, is beautiful–a call to a freedom “with regard to material things:” free from trends, free from the anxiety to possess. It is not an automatic choice, and it cannot be a verbal or “value” choice. In order to be free with regard to material things, we need the courage of happiness and the courage of sobriety.