“If he’s good enough, then he’s old enough.” This statement is a favorite among soccer coaches who will, at times, take a player who is barely old enough to drive and throw him into a game against seasoned professionals twice his age.
Last Sunday in the final game of the season, both of the goals scored by Glasgow Celtic in their 2-1 victory over Heart of Midlothian came from Mikey Johnston, a 20-year-old who looks like he could be a sophomore walking the halls at Saint Ignatius. But the real story from that game was the much anticipated debut of 16-year-old Karamoko Dembélé. When Dembélé came on at the start of the second half the atmosphere among the 60,000 fans at Celtic Park became electric, and his presence was noted in the BBC headline “Dembélé Makes the Difference.”
Had he been watching that game I am sure that Pope Francis would have had a smile on his face as he watched Johnston, Dembélé and a number of very young players on both sides put on a show that enabled BBC Scotland reporter Tom English to write, “At times it might have been hard for supporters to know whether to sing a lusty football song or a soothing lullaby.”
In the opening chapter of Christus Vivit, the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation to young people, the Holy Father goes to the Bible to describe the callings, characteristics, and accomplishments of some of the most youthful heroes of Salvation History. From Joseph and Gideon to David and Solomon, God goes against the conventional wisdom and chooses young people to carry out His plan. Emblematic of this trend is the choice of David, a mere shepherd boy, to be the King of the Chosen People. Samuel wanted to anoint Eliab, the oldest of the sons of Jesse, but God said to him: “man looks on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
The choice of David rather than Eliab or another of the older sons may have been unsettling to Samuel and Jesse, but, as Pope Francis explains, “The glory of youth is in the heart, more than in physical strength or the impression given to others.” And Francis speaks in the next paragraph about Jeremiah, also chosen at a young age, and notes that “The devotion of the prophet Jeremiah to his mission shows what can happen when the brashness of youth is joined to the power of God.”
Heart and brashness – no two words could better describe what it is to be young: the willingness to try anything because you just don’t know any better. That combination will bring with it both triumphs and disappointments, and Francis encourages young people to never become discouraged, and “not to let themselves be robbed of hope.” Their call is “to dream great things, to seek vast horizons, to aim higher, to take on the world, to accept challenges, and to offer the best of themselves to the building of something better.”
Yet Francis tempers this call to action by quoting St. Peter, who told the young people of his day “to accept the authority of those who are older.” Peter’s successor reminds his audience that “The Bible never ceases to insist that profound respect be shown to the elderly, since they have a wealth of experience: “They have known success and failure, life’s joys and afflictions, its dreams and disappointments. In the silence of their hearts, they have a store of experiences that can teach us not to make mistakes or be taken in by false promises.”
Francis closes out the first chapter of Christus Vivit by referencing the parable of the wise and foolish young women, warning his listeners that their days can be wasted in distraction, “skimming the surface of life, half-asleep, incapable of cultivating meaningful relationships or experiencing the deeper things in life,” and calling them to aspire instead “to beautiful and great things.”
This opening chapter is reminiscent of the beautiful encouragement that was so much a part of the ministry of Pope St. John Paul, and, without quoting him directly, Francis certainly echoes John Paul’s love for and faith in young people. Like any good coach, these Vicars of Christ want the young people in their charge to know that if you are good enough, then you are old enough.