The care and education of young people has been a part of the Church’s implicit teaching for centuries – at least as far back as the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas – but with the publication of the Vatican II document Gravissum Educationis in 1965 the belief that “parents are the primary educators of their children” has been enshrined as the ruling principle of Catholic educational philosophy. In Chapter 7 of Christus Vivit Pope Francis expands this belief to include the entire Catholic community as those responsible for the evangelization of young people.
The role of the adults in the room, for lack of a better phrase, is to act like the adults in the room. Parents, grandparents, priests, parish staffs, teachers, coaches – all who share in the lives of young people – need to fulfill their ministry as evangelizers of those in their care. But, and this is not explicitly discussed in the document (but could be), that would necessitate the adults continuing their own spiritual formation. As anyone who has ever taught – and that includes all subjects and not just theology – knows, you can’t pass on what you don’t have.
So all of us, young and old alike, need to bind ourselves to God and each other and do so in ways that focus on the central and time-tested pillars of Catholic life: doctrine, morality, sacraments, prayer, service. For Francis, all of these are necessary in order to build up the family of the Church, but all need to be understood within the context of today’s young people and the culture within which they have been raised.
Here the pope is showing his Jesuit roots since the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola is the great model of innovative and flexible spirituality. There is no “one size fits all” approach to the Christian life and those who minister to young people need to always keep this in mind: over time, and within different cultural settings, the methods need to change if the results are to continue to be successful.
Essential in this time and for these young people is something that the pope has discussed before and does so here again: the importance of rootedness in a deracinated world. He is well aware of the down-side of the post-modern world and what it has done to people, and he concludes that it has made orphans of us all:
“The experience of discontinuity, uprootedness, and the collapse of fundamental certainties, fostered by today’s media culture, creates a deep sense of orphanhood to which we must respond by creating an attractive and fraternal environment where others can live with a sense of purpose.”
This “attractive and fraternal environment” can go by many names, but first and foremost it is what we have traditionally called a family. And so the gauntlet is thrown down to those who are mothers and fathers: create such an environment where you and your children “can live with a sense of purpose.” This challenge, by extension, must be taken up by all who work with young people, especially within the context of a parish or a school.
One necessary aspect of this ministry to young people is a term that Francis has used on a number of occasions: accompaniment. Without a proper context this term can exude the vacuous numbing effect of all of the self-help jargon that passes for “deep and meaningful thought” in a world lacking in deep and meaningful thought.
For Francis, accompaniment begins with the family and all other ministries are to build upon what parents naturally do with and for their children. As parents know, there are times when the accompaniment entails teaching or disciplining, other times when it entails consoling or encouraging, and other times – maybe the most important of times – when it entails silence or watching from a safe distance while hoping and praying for the best.
Throughout this chapter Francis shows that youth ministry is more than any particular program or event. Youth ministry is literally the work of the Church, a work of extreme value for us all, and one upon which the future of the Church depends.
Cardinal (and soon to be Saint) Henry Newman was once asked about the importance of the laity to the Church. His response was perfect and can be used as the answer to a similar question: how important are young people to the Church? The Church would look pretty empty without them.
That’s how important youth ministry is.