Few truisms resonate with people my age more than “Youth is wasted on the young.” I’m guessing that I’m not alone in wishing that I could avail myself of a few “do-overs” from my sometimes ill-spent youth. It is in such a light that the first statement of Chapter 5 of Christus Vivit takes on great significance: “youth, more than a source of pride, is a gift from God.” And since the term most commonly used for a gift from God is “grace,” it is the task of this chapter to show that youth is a graced time in the life of any of God’s children, but, as Francis sadly points out, one that “we can squander meaninglessly.”
There is a certain quaintness – here and elsewhere in the document – in the attempt by Francis to be “relevant” in the eyes of his young audience when he makes references like “you need to stay connected to Jesus, to “remain online” with Him,” but there is nothing quaint about his message: “Don’t observe life from a balcony. Don’t confuse happiness with an armchair, or live your life behind a screen…Don’t go through life anaesthetized or approach the world like tourists…Live! Give yourselves over to the best of life!”
So if staring at a screen brings on a life of anaesthetized stupor rather than true happiness, and if being cool and disengaged only makes you a tourist with no skin in the game; then what does the Holy Father offer instead? Throughout the chapter, as pope Francis does his best to encourage young people to shun the allure of the meaningless squandering of these important years, he offers them the option of true friendship – especially with Jesus, and communal fraternity – especially within the context of the Church and Her sacramental life.
Here he skillfully ties together quotes from saints, past and present, to offer a way of life that, because it offers meaning beyond what the pleasures of this world can even imagine, leads to what everyone wants: a life of real meaning and true happiness. In this chapter that focuses on the “Paths of Youth” Francis sets the tone early on with this quote from St. Augustine: “You have created us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
This statement, originally from the third sentence of The Confessions, is the fruit of Augustine’s reflection on why – despite his youthful wanderings in all of the pleasures that life afforded – he was not happy until he cultivated a friendship with Jesus and availed himself of the sacramental community of the Church. As Ben Franklin famously said, “Experience keeps an expensive school, but fools will learn in no other.” The Holy Father wants his audience to avoid being fools.
But that does not mean that he wants young Catholics to be timid and too scared to take risks: just the opposite. He tells his readers “Learn to swim against the tide.” And even though many, if not most, readers will not catch the link, the pope also quotes from St. Oscar Romero, a man who himself was transformed from someone who was too timid to swim against the tide into a brave martyr who was gunned down by a government that saw him as a threat to their hegemony.
Fittingly, it is the quote from St. Oscar Romero that brings into sharp focus not only the movement from passive believer to active witness, but also the primary message of this chapter, apostolic exhortation, and message of the Gospel as a whole: “Christianity is not a collection of truths to be believed, rules to be followed, or prohibitions. Seen that way it puts us off. Christianity is a Person Who loved me immensely, Who demands and claims my love. Christianity is Christ.”
It is easy for young people – indeed, for all of us – to cheer the first part of that quote, for who doesn’t tire of the life-sapping nature of rules and prohibitions or the impersonal nature of a list of truths? It is the latter half of the quote that provides the challenge: Christ is the One who demands and claims my love.
We all want to claim Jesus as our friend, and that is a great thing – in fact, a claim made by Jesus Himself: “I do not call you servants any longer, but I call you friends.” And yet, despite this beautiful thought, we – those who are young as well as those who are not – need to remember the verse in John’s Gospel that immediately precedes this quote: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
And it is through living up to this command that all of us who attend or have attended the expensive school of experience can receive that blessed and most sought-after “do-over.”