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Being Church with young people

Opinion

Shari is a good friend of mine from my parish in the USA. She’s a long time member of the community, a former music teacher and school principal, a trustee of the parish, and a faithful volunteer in the parish youth ministry. A single woman in her 70s, never married, no children, Shari is a sort of surrogate grandmother to young people in the community.

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One summer, on a week-long service-learning trip to Detroit, Michigan with the youth ministry, Shari volunteered as a chaperon. She drove the van, slept on the floor (despite her bad hips), worked alongside the teens, and broke bread with the community. Shari gave of her time and comfort to be with these young people and by the end of the week she was the beloved elder of the community.

Shari spent time with each young person, learning their name and getting to know more about them. She was an attentive listener, never offered unsolicited advice, shared her own story and only offered love to the young people. Through her vulnerability and self-sacrifice, she gave those young people the greatest gift anyone could ever give: a relationship of love. And the young people loved her in return. Through these dynamic relationships, the Church was being renewed.

Shari is a living example of the kind of Church Pope Francis is calling us to be. His apostolic exhortation, Christus Vivit, is addressed first to the young people of the world. He spends much of the letter offering encouragement to young people, and joyfully proclaiming the Gospel in a way that demonstrates its relevance to their lives. But the letter is not just for young people, Francis also writes to the rest of us.

The Pope challenges the conventional perceptions of the Church’s responsibility to young people. “We adults can often be tempted to list all the problems and failings of today’s young people. Perhaps some will find it praiseworthy that we seem so expert in discerning difficulties and dangers. But what would be the result of such an attitude? Greater distance, less closeness, less mutual assistance.” (66)

Pope Francis is calling on the bishops, priests, youth ministers, parents, teachers, and indeed the whole Church to not only support young people, but to befriend young people. In doing so, we learn what it means to be Church, to be a community of love. “Once the Church sets aside narrow preconceptions and listens carefully to the young, this empathy enriches her, for it ‘allows young people their own contributions to the community, helping it to appreciate new sensitivities and to consider new questions’.” (65)

By welcoming young people as they are, offering a listening ear in place of a list of correctives and doctrines, we open ourselves to the possibility for renewal, to be a living Church that is ‘eternally young’.

Christus Vivit is challenging me as a father of young children, as a lay ecclesial minister with young people and as a member of the body of Christ, to be more ready to embrace young people, accompany them and learn from them. I highly encourage anyone to read this letter, to pray with it, and to ask for the grace to live it. For it is truly Francis’ intention that we would be transformed by our encounters with young people, and they with us.

“Anyone called to be a parent or guide to young people must have the farsightedness to appreciate the little flame that continues to burn, the fragile reed that is shaken but not broken (cf. Is 42:3). The ability to discern pathways where others only see walls, to recognise potential where others see only peril. That is how God the Father see things; he knows how to cherish and nurture the seeds of goodness sown in the hearts of the young. Each young person’s heart should thus be considered ‘holy ground’, a bearer of seeds of divine life, before which we must ‘take off our shoes’ in order to draw near and enter more deeply into the Mystery.” (67)

Peter Bierer is coordinator of the Catholic Office for Youth and Young Adults.

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