Given its title - “A Great Message for All Young People” – the fourth chapter of the apostolic exhortation Christus Vivit needs to be followed by an instruction that really delivers. Some readers might want to forgive the Holy Father for using a bit of hyperbole in the title, but, in all honesty, the title is a bit of an understatement since the heading of the chapter could easily be “The Best Message for All Young People.”
His message – which is not his own, but the perennial message of the Faith – is, as he says, “essential,” and it comes in the form of three truths plus an additional corollary: God loves you; Christ saves you; Christ is alive; and the Holy Spirit opens your heart and gives you life.
In combination, these statements provide young people with a rendering of the Gospel message at its core, and the explication provided by Pope Francis gives a clear and profound path for young people to follow if they want to be, as the pope says, “genuinely happy.”
The great service that the pope does to young people in this chapter is not so much the listing of these truths – although they are the foundation from which all Christian apologetics must be built – but the important insights he is able to draw from them.
To tell people that God loves them is, without the proper explanation, a mere platitude that is void of any real meaning. All too often, this essential truth of the Faith is followed – either explicitly or implicitly – by the phrase “just the way you are’ without any nuance or explanation. Fortunately, Francis gives a well-rounded account of what this means, beginning with his (to my mind, at least) chilling statement that God “fully respects your freedom.”
While fully respecting our freedom to choose evil over good, and while unconditionally loving us no matter how many times and in whatever ways we choose evil – even when we choose evil that “cries to Heaven for vengeance” – God still calls us to leave behind the “just the way you are” self and to be transformed by His love into a new self who is healed and raised up.
Aquinas tells us that love is desiring what is best for the one loved, and therefore God never wants anything but the best for us, and that includes never abandoning His role as Father to take on what Dr. Peter Kreeft of Boston College calls the role of Grandfather – the guy who buys you ice cream and is happy as long as everyone had a good time. The Father wants more – much more: He wants you to “make room for Him to push you, to help you grow.”
As St. John says in the most referenced line from all of Sacred Scripture (Jn. 3:16), “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” And thus the second great truth both springs from and builds upon the first: “Christ, out of love, sacrificed Himself completely in order to save you.”
Jesus, therefore, as the personification of divine love in action is both the means of our salvation and the model for our behavior, but only if, as Francis so beautifully states, we “Look to His cross, cling to Him, let him save [us].” Using the reaction of the father to the prodigal son and Jesus to St. Peter after his three denials, the Holy Father points out that God “always, always, always embraces us after every fall.” In fact, “The Lord’s love is greater than all our problems, frailties, and flaws. Yet it is precisely through our problems, frailties, and flaws that He wants to write this love story.”
Thus, Francis points out that God takes our human freedom, with all of its inherent problems, frailties and flaws, and offers us divine freedom, a freedom to respond to the love of God. In a typically “Franciscan” way, the pope warns young people: “Please do not let yourselves be bought. Do not let yourselves be seduced. Do not let yourselves be enslaved by forms of ideological colonization that put ideas in your heads, with the result that you end up becoming slaves, addicts, failures in life. You are priceless. You must repeat this always: I am not up for sale; I do not have a price. I am free!”
Through both the third truth – Christ is alive! – and the belief in the Holy Spirit as the One Who opens our hearts and gives us life, all Christians, but especially the young, are offered the only way to experience sustained and true happiness (and, thus, true freedom). A personal encounter with the risen Christ, through Whom we receive the Holy Spirit, is the only possible way out of the inevitable disappointment that comes with relying on the solutions offered by this world. Those solutions “may be helpful for a time, but once again we will find ourselves exposed and abandoned before the storms of life.”
The chapter concludes with Francis asking his readers, “Do you need love?” He then lists all those things that a lying world offers instead of true love: using others, accumulating material objects, spending money, etc. As an alternative, he proposes – and not just for young people – a different way, a way spoken of by another famous Jesuit, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J.:
“Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”