In this third reflection on Christus Vivit, scholastic Jon Polce SJ (Campus Minster at Strake Jesuit Prep in Houston, Texas, USA) reflects on how the Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation does not only speak to young people but also encourages those who minister to them to remain youthful in the faith.
What does it mean to live the years of our youth in the transforming light of the Gospel? We need to raise this question, because youth, more than a source of pride, is a gift of God: “To be young is a grace, a blessing”. It is a gift that we can squander meaninglessly, or receive with gratitude and live to the full. [Christus Vivit 134]
If you see a wise man, visit him early;
let your foot wear out his doorstep.” ~ Sirach 6:36
Pope Francis’ recent exhortation “Christus Vivit” is a powerful and prayer inducing reflection for young people and those that accompany them as well. As a high school teacher, I found Pope Francis was speaking directly into my experience using the light of the Gospel and the Church’s wisdom. I thought I was going to read a document that was primarily directed at how young people can respond to Christ and to the Church, and thus I would be a more passive observer to this Papal conversation. While Francis does certainly address young people directly at times, I found Francis offering me – as a teacher, educator, and person involved with young people – great advice for my personal growth in how I live out the youthful spirit of Christ in my ministry and in my Christian life.
The first thing that moved me was Francis’ beautiful Biblical exposé of all the young people that God has called into His service throughout Scripture and Church history (in chapters 1 and 2). God has consistently showed His trust and empowerment of the young to become sanctified challenges of his grace and message when they draw close to him. Francis recognizes that Jesus, as eternally young, has a special place for the young, and when we draw close to Jesus, no matter our age, he will leave our hearts young and full of virtue. Francis calls the young the “now of God” who is eternally young himself (64/178). For Francis, calendar years is not what brings wisdom, old age, or closeness to God, rather it is the youthful state of our heart, which means close to God (34/35). The biggest age factor in our world is Sin. This forced me to reflect on how spiritually young my heart is, and what causes me to grow spiritual old?
My heart is important, for it will be from this heart that I offer my ministry. Francis cautions those that work with the young to not “be tempted to list all the problems and failings of today’s young people” (66/67). I have felt this, and seen this in high school ministry. Teachers and youth ministers can put students in boxes and only focus on their mistakes, which causes these young people to be sidelined in terms of evangelization. On the contrary, adults sometimes take the safe path, and only try and evangelize and minister to those who are already believers. This overly negative attitude can causes us to despair of the power of Christ’s grace to reach the hardest of hearts, and to withdraw our evangelical spirit with those we work with. If we minister from a heart like this, how will we attract the young and inspire them to follow Christ?
Francis challenges educators, like me, “to discern pathways where others only see walls, to recognize 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” (67). Francis is calling educators to have eyes to see the potential in our young people, to look beyond the now of a young person who might be difficult or challenging, and to try and draw out the latent goodness that is present there. Francis sees this is what God has done with us, and what we ought to extend to others, especially the young. Like St. Paul reminds us in Romans, that God’s love is remarkable in that he died for us while we were still sinners – taking hope and comfort in our future faith and zeal – are we willing to extend the same love to the young people we minister too? Can we die to our self, for the sake of unlocking the profound potential in those we minister to, so that we might minister like Christ?
Francis’ challenge cannot be merely on that remains on the level of human potential, like college admissions, or one’s place in the world, but must also see the spiritual potential in our young people. How many of the greatest saints in our tradition, some that Francis enumerates in this encyclical, were at one time a hellion? Could Augustine have become a Saint, if St. Monica hadn’t saw the spiritual potential in him, and prayed for God to soften his heart? Could Ignatius have become a saint, if his sister hadn’t brought him works of God at his most vulnerable time, thus beginning God’s grace to unlock his holiness? Francis is challenging those that minister to the young, to have God-like eyes and hearts to see and work for the future saint within the student who, right now, lives a life opposite of God.
After reading this exhortation by Francis, I’m left praying with the need to see how my own heart needs to become young again, and how I can grow in seeing the spiritual potential of the young people I work with, so that I might have a heart more like Christ, with a youthful zeal and joy for those I minister too.