Young Catholics aren’t the church of the future—they’re the church of now.
In the central rotunda of Keating Hall on the campus of Fordham University, there is a unique statue that is often overlooked by the the busy students and faculty who walk by on the way to class. The statue depicts Jesus at 18, the average age of an incoming college student. According to Aloysius Hogan, S.J., who envisioned the project when he was the college president in the 1930s, the figure was the first artistic depiction of Christ at the age of a college student.
The life of Jesus Christ as a young person, something not often depicted in art, is one that Pope Francis invites us to consider in his newly released exhortation, “Christus Vivit,” his official follow up text to the Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment that took place last October. In this long letter to young people, the pope urges them “to contemplate the young Jesus as presented in the Gospels, for he was truly one of you, and shares many of the features of your young hearts” (No. 31).
What difference might it make to contemplate Christ as a young person?
What difference might it make to contemplate Christ as a young person? What different might it make to consider how Christ is alive in the young, baptized members of his church?
For Francis in “Christus Vivit,” the answer seems to be twofold. First and foremost, by seeing Christ in young adults, the church is called to acknowledge that young Catholics are not simply the “church of tomorrow,” as many will often say, but they are the church of the present. Citing his address at World Youth Day in Panama, Francis describes young people as the “now of God” (No. 178). This is something that was also brought up in the final statement of the synod, which emphasizes that “Young Catholics are not merely on the receiving end of pastoral activity: they are living members of the one ecclesial body, baptized persons in whom the Spirit of the Lord is alive and active. They help to enrich what the Church is and not only what she does. They are her present and not only her future” (No. 54).
To recognize that Christ is alive in the young members of his body affirms both the agency and responsibility of young people in the church and society. In the letter, Francis several times affirms the social commitments of young adults, including the recent “news reports of the many young people throughout the world who have taken to the streets to express the desire for a more just and fraternal society” (No. 174).
For the pope, this is an important gift that young people offer the church and the world. “Christus Vivit” urges young people to continue to deepen this social commitment and to make their voices heard, even if political and ecclesial leaders may not want to hear them. In one of the more approachable sections, he urges young people to be active agents in their world:
Dear young people, make the most of these years of your youth. Don’t observe life from a balcony. Don’t confuse happiness with an armchair, or live your life behind a screen. Whatever you do, do not become the sorry sight of an abandoned vehicle! Don’t be parked cars, but dream freely and make good decisions. Take risks, even if it means making mistakes. Don’t go through life anesthetized, or approach the world like tourists. Make a ruckus! Cast out the fears that paralyze you, so that you don’t become young mummies. Live! Give yourselves over to the best of life! Open the door of the cage, go out and fly! Please, don’t take an early retirement (No. 143).
This leads to a second implication for seeing Christ alive in young people. Youth, campus and young adult ministry must be rethought through a missionary and participatory key. A recognition that Christ is already active in young members of the church calls for a rethinking of youth ministry and a move to more participatory models where young people can become, as the Second Vatican Council called for, “the first apostles to the young” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, No. 12). For Francis, this means moving away from models where young people are passive recipients and a priest, religious or lay minister is the only agent. Instead of top-down approaches, Francis calls for a model based more on synodality, collective discernment and accompaniment.
The church is called to acknowledge that young Catholics are not simply the “church of tomorrow,” but they are the church of the present.
“Youth ministry,” he writes, “has to be synodal; it should involve a ‘journeying together’ that values “the charisms that the Spirit bestows in accordance with the vocation and role of each of the church’s members, through a process of co-responsibility.... Motivated by this spirit, we can move towards a participatory and co-responsible church, one capable of appreciating its own rich variety, gratefully accepting the contributions of the lay faithful, including young people and women, consecrated persons, as well as groups, associations and movements. No one should be excluded or exclude themselves” (No. 206).
Unfortunately, the text offers little in the way of concrete proposals for how to bring about such a change. It seems it will be up to local church communities and young people themselves to bring about new models. Nevertheless, the letter offers an important change in tone.
If we see young people as being baptized members of the community, the church of today, the now of God, then we must open up spaces for their voices to be heard in the life of the church. Throughout “Christus Vivit,” there is a sense that this recognition can be a powerful counterforce to clericalism and models of power that disempower young people. For the pope, it seems, the voices of the young church are one of the ways in which Christ and the Holy Spirit are working to keep the church young and vibrant in a wounded world. This is a message, I hope that all of us, old and young, can get behind.