Christus vivit: At the heart of the solution
Young people at Flame 2019, the church youth festival, in March Photo:
The Synod in Rome in October last year focused on young people, faith and vocational discernment; in his reflection on the Synod published last week, Pope Francis places the energy, creativity and openness of young people at the centre of his reform of the Church
“They’ve let us down – surely it’s not much to ask: be good and go to Mass.” This from a recent conversation with a parish priest criticising the young people who attend the Catholic school in his London parish, but, much to his distress, rarely appear at Mass.
In calling a Synod on “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment”, it’s easy to think this is what Pope Francis was trying to address: young people don’t turn up and don’t care any more. But that’s not it. There are problems, yes, but his new apostolic exhortation, Christus vivit, reflects a different conviction. Francis believes that the young are not the problem; they are at the heart of the solution.
In Christus vivit, Francis makes clear that young people are his partners in the renewal of the Church. He looks to the peripheries to drive his renewal. Just as he sees indigenous peoples and the poor as a place where the Church can learn what God wants from us today, he believes young people have the energy, ideas, creativity and openness to new approaches often lacking at the centre. In Francis’ words, “each young person’s heart should thus be considered ‘holy ground’, a bearer of seeds of divine life, before which we must take off our shoes” (67).
When I opened Christus vivit, I had been hoping for the charismatic Francis of Evangelii gaudium or the punchy Francis of Laudato Si’. What I found instead was something gentler. What Francis is doing in Christus vivit is inviting us into a rich journey of discernment that was his experience of the Synod process.
A young German Jesuit who was one of the expert advisers to the Synod regards it as a “silent document”, to be kept by your bed or where you pray, best appreciated over time. It is born of listening and discernment, and it’s this process of accompaniment that Francis invites us to enter. Resist the temptation to skip over the sections directly addressed to young people, because it’s his dialogue with them, and what he learns from it, that he wants you to be involved in.
In Christus vivit, Francis models the practice of synodality that his papacy calls us all to. He doesn’t tell us what to do to engage and empower young people: rather, he shows us where to focus our attention in order to discern how we do this for ourselves in our own contexts. It’s pastoral ministry for a living Church. Had he suggested particular practical techniques, they would only work in certain places, and only for so long.
In recent years, I have been involved with a group of committed young Catholics who want to use the rich resources of the Church to respond to the problems of our world in a new and innovative ways. The main difficulty we found is that there doesn’t seem to be a space for us, opportunities or possibilities for us to try things out. It’s here that the Synod Fruits project started; we want to help share the thinking of the whole Synod process, help further its implementation to create spaces in the Church where young adults can be better welcomed, nourished and can take responsibility – and help the whole Church remember the eternal newness of the Gospel and preach it with authenticity. One of the key messages of Christus vivit is that the young are the present of the Church; we’re not there to fill a gap in the future but are already helping it in its mission to preach the Gospel.
We have already developed resources to help people engage with the Synod and think about how they bring it to their own context, and we hope to create bespoke resources for parish groups, lessons and sessions for youth groups. We are also available to run workshops, and are looking to work in partnership with others. We run it on a shoestring, but what better way to share the fruits of the Synod and the Pope’s thinking in Christus vivit than for young people like us to take the lead?
Pope Francis’ emphasis on the need to journey and discern with young people is important, but he is reticent about the structural problems that lie at the heart of the disengagement of so many young adults from the Church. While growing up, I found places to be nourished in my faith, but the difficulty comes in the years after you leave school or university. You move to a new city for a job, you rent a place for six months or a year, then move somewhere else, then you move jobs, move again to be closer to a partner, or get another new job in a new place. Life is transient. It’s not only (as the Synod final document recognises) the parish that isn’t set up for a generation of “constant mobility” (129), but the diocese too. I’ve lived in eight different parishes, across three different dioceses, in the six-and-a-half years I have lived in and around London. There is still more thinking and more experimenting to be done to work out how the Church’s pastoral structures can better serve young people.
There is a huge amount in Christus vivit that recognises the situation of young adults and helps the whole Church discern how to respond. So I encourage you to become part of the Synod: delve into Christus vivit, use our resources if you find them helpful, and, even if they may just be passing through your parish, engage with young people. Invite them to coffee after Mass, listen to them, involve them and make space, so they can use their energy, insights and skills to help us all do a better job of bringing the Gospel to our modern world.
Chris Knowles is the co-founder of Synod Fruits (SynodFruits.org.uk) and coordinator of FMD (FormingMissionaryDisciples.org.uk). He lives in East London with his wife and two cats.