Keep the Fire Burning: The Apostolic Exhortation ‘Christus Vivit’
He is alive and wants you to be alive! This is how Pope Francis begins his new apostolic exhortation, which he signed on March 25, 2019. This exclamation summarizes the underlying meaning of Bergoglio’s text, whose title is Christus Vivit, Christ is alive. “Life,” “living,” “alive” are terms repeated throughout the text some 280 times, just as many times as the word “young,” which is the key to the exhortation. A life lived to the full: this is the heart of the thinking of Francis concerning young people. The pages turn over quickly, full of energy as though to shake us or literally exhort us to a full life.
Youth does not exist: young people do
In a book-length interview called God is Young Francis specified that “youth does not exist. When we talk about youth, we are often unconsciously referring to myths about youth. I like to think that youth does not exist, only young people.” Young people cannot be categorized as a separate caste.
Certainly, we can say with St. Paul VI that the age of youth “should not be considered the age of free passions, unavoidable failure, insuperable crises, decadent pessimism, harmful egoism; being young is a grace, it is a blessing.” And it is a grace and a blessing given to all, for all of us are or have been young. Speaking of young people, then, means speaking of being human. Beyond all other considerations, the Church sees in them the instincts for happiness and fullness of those who are open to life.
Christus Vivit is a link in a chain. It can certainly be read as a stand-alone text, but it is good to be clearly aware that the pope has “made his own” a complex and rich writing process that saw the involvement of hundreds of young people: the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the theme “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment,” which took place in Rome, October 3-28, 2018, and produced its own Final Document. Speaking about young people means speaking of promises. Every young person is something of a prophet. The Synod was called to gather and interpret this prophecy. Christus Vivit is part of this hermeneutical work. The exhortation consists of nine chapters. Let us gather the keys to what Francis says as they appear in the text.
He is alive and wants you to be alive!
The opening chapter is a rapid series of close ups of some of the young people in the Bible. It is very readable as the pope is not making a great speech, but just gathering synthetically some characteristics, actions, deeds … sketches that can be used to compose a big picture. Thus, we see a God who inspires young people in their dreams (Joseph) and goes out to choose his elect among those whom others ignore (David). And we have sincere young people who do not sweeten the harshness of life (Gideon), insecure youngsters who know how to be courageous (Samuel), young people who feel lost before their responsibilities, but who know how to react wisely (Solomon) or reawaken the consciences of their people (Jeremiah), young people who are examples of generosity at times of disgrace (Ruth), or an anonymous girl who ended up in service to the wife of Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram who knew how to intelligently help her “master.”
The same sketching technique is used for the New Testament, where young people appear who are willing to undergo a profound change in their lives, to learn. The pope writes: “Young people are not meant to become discouraged; they are meant 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” (No. 15).
There is even a boy who has “given up his youth” (No. 18). This is a strong expression and concerns a person who came to Jesus seeking “something more,” but who then goes away sadly. In this way, renouncing youthfulness is to live distractedly, asleep, “skimming the surface of life” (No. 19).
The second chapter fleshes out the figure of “youthfulness.” We are not just looking at intuitions about the phenomenology of youth. We have a face: The face of Jesus. The pope sees youthfulness there. Christ too is presented with some characteristics, and he is painted with some imagination.
Jesus is a young person immersed in relationships. Let us read the picture Francis draws referring to the caravan of families going up to Jerusalem: “Jesus was there, mingling with the others, joking with other young people, listing to the adults tell stories and sharing the joys and sorrows of the group. Indeed, the Greek word that Luke uses to describe the group – synodía – clearly evokes a larger ‘community on a journey’ of which the Holy Family is a part. Thanks to the trust of his parents, Jesus can move freely and learn to journey with others” (No. 29).
Here we see this particular way of being in the caravan, which the pope connects to the term “synod,” that is, the very ecclesial event that generated this apostolic exhortation. A synodal Church is one that knows how to be young and part of the world engaging in the world of relationships without pulling back into an elitist, separate place. It is a caravan: this is an image of the Church. It is also a way of living in the world with projects, “lest we create projects that isolate young people from their family and the larger community, or turn them into a select few, protected from all contamination. Rather, we need projects that can strengthen them, accompany them and impel them to encounter others, to engage in generous service, in mission” (No. 30).
Restlessness, key to holiness and mission of the Church
This is how the Church is called to be (cf. Nos. 34-42): free from sclerosis and from being unmoved, able to fight for justice, being humble. But Francis knows that many young people do not consider the Church to be significant for their lives. Indeed, sometimes they find the Church invasive and irritating (cf. No. 40). When the Church is defensive and does not listen, it transforms into a “museum” (No. 41). So, here is the question: How can the Church embrace the dreams of the young?
The pope does not remain at the abstract level, but traces some other images, short portraits of 12 young saints who are the natural continuation of the sketches of the biblical figures: from St. Sebastian in the third century to Blessed Chiara Badano who died in 1990. Looking at the dreams and interests of young people, the Church understands that its own identity is closely tied to its task, to its mission.
The pope finds in Mary the full image of the Church. But it is interesting to note he defines her as restless or “energetic” (No. 46). Restlessness is, in sum, the key to holiness and the mission of the Church.
The third chapter of the exhortation is dedicated to reading the situation of the young people today, and so precisely their restlessness. This reading has no intention of being exhaustive but makes ample reference to the Final Document of the Synod. Francis writes at the beginning of Christus Vivit: “In this way, my words will echo the myriad voices of believers the world over who made their opinions known to the Synod. Those young people who are not believers, yet wished to share their thoughts, also raised issues that led me to ask new questions” (No. 4).
The word of the pope, then, takes up and is even charged – almost electrically – by the voices of believers and non-believers. And he does so with sacral respect. In fact, he writes: “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’ in order to draw near and enter more deeply into the Mystery” (No. 67).
From the synodal dynamic a method strongly emerges that is confirmed by the apostolic exhortation of Francis: before interpreting or making choices, you need to listen, you need to know the reality. You need to be made restless, or disturbed by reality. You cannot hear the young people if you do not walk with them along the ways of the world. Gathered in the synod hall, the pastors of the Church became aware that the Gospel message the Church treasures can only be transmitted by walking along the way with young people. Indeed, within the people of God they can even go before us. The icon that accompanied the reflections of the synod was that of the disciples of Emmaus. It is used again by Francis in his exhortation (cf. Nos. 156, 236, 292, 296). The entire third chapter of the exhortation confirms this method of journeying together.
The first thing that we note by listening is that the voices are too different to be confused into a single voice. Polyphony is indispensable. We cannot lump everything together as one and the same. As we said at the beginning: we cannot speak of “youth” in general. If we listen to them and walk with them, all the differences and diversities of their voices emerge.
Young people of a world in crisis
And yet despite their differences, in the title of one paragraph the pope does not hesitate to speak of “Young people of a world in crisis.” And crisis is the fruit of violence, persecution, abuse, addiction and exclusion of many kinds. The worst response to all this would be “anesthesia”: becoming so used to this colonization of the mind and the soul, losing sensitivity, remaining at the level of appearances and ignoring what is unwanted, poor, ugly and leftover.
The antidote exists: it consists in seeing things through eyes full of tears. These are the questions Francis asks: “Can I weep? Can I weep when I see a child who is starving, on drugs or on the street, homeless, abandoned, mistreated or exploited as a slave by society? Or is my weeping only the self-centered whining of those who cry because they want something else?” (No. 76).
The pope sees in young people “desires, hurts and longings” and recalls that the synod identified three themes of great importance (cf. Final Document, Nos. 21-31, and in the Exhortation, Nos. 86-102). He takes them up as they were written and quotes them at length. These are: the digital environment, migration and the drama of abuse.
The digital environment is understood not only as an instrument of communication, but also as the context for a widely digitalized culture. Francis is very clear in identifying the digital as a context of “social and political engagement and active citizenship” (No. 87). In this sense he touches a very hot topic in our society: a problem, but also a challenge to be embraced. We cannot pretend that the network does not exist and we have to take note that consent is formed through the digital sphere. Dissatisfaction, especially, is expressed there. How can we make the network a form of democratic participation without falling into the pitfalls of demagogy?
Migrations are understood as an “epitome of our time.” The phenomenon is described in its effects of suffering and abuse, as well as xenophobic sentiments. The Church today is called to play a prophetic role. This is certainly another burning theme.
The drama of abuse is articulated in its forms tied to power, to the economy, conscience and sexuality. Francis comments: “This dark cloud also challenges all young people who love Jesus Christ and his Church: they can be a source of great healing if they employ their great capacity to bring about renewal, to urge and demand consistent witness, to keep dreaming and coming up with new ideas” (No. 100).
A theme present throughout the exhortation is that of the defense of the rights of women and the need for reciprocity (Nos. 42 and 81) between men and women. The pope speaks of this in No. 42: “Instead, a living Church can react by being attentive to the legitimate claims of those women who seek greater justice and equality. A living Church can look back on history and acknowledge a fair share of male authoritarianism, domination, various forms of enslavement, abuse and sexist violence. With this outlook, she can support the call to respect women’s rights, and offer convinced support for greater reciprocity between males and females, while not agreeing with everything some feminist groups propose.”
We should note the move from the word “complementarity” to the word “reciprocity.” Complementarity seems more static and gives women one role and men another. In some way this crystalizes the relationships in a game of characterizations that do not respect the concrete life of a male-female couple. Christian revelation puts into discussion, then, a platonic concept of human nature that interprets difference as if it were destined to disappear into the unity of love from which, by fusion, a complete human being would arise. We note finally that in No. 245 Francis speaks of the lack of the example of liderazgo femenino, that is, of “leading female role models within the Church.”
The ‘great message’
The fourth chapter is the central one for the exhortation. It is dedicated to the “great message for all young people” and contains “three great truths that all of us need constantly to keep hearing” (No. 111).
The first is “God loves you.” This message is disarmingly simple. Yet this is the very point of the Christian message. “It makes no difference whether you have already heard it or not. I want to remind you of it. God loves you. Never doubt this, whatever may happen to you in life. At every moment, you are infinitely loved” (No. 112). Above all, God is not a hard disk. His memory is a “heart filled with tender compassion” (No. 115). Without this truth in Christianity everything falls to pieces. The pastoral work of Francis is striking for how it corrects the image of a false, dusty and heavy God. We have overloaded the image of God with ideas that distance him from his true image as lover of life.
The second “great truth” that Francis expresses in the fourth chapter of Christus Vivit is that “Christ, out of love, sacrificed himself completely in order to save you.” And the truth becomes an appeal for action: “Look to his cross, cling to him, let him save you” (No. 119). This love that goes as far as the cross overcomes all our fragilities and contradictions. Indeed, Christ writes his history of love with us through our “problems, frailties and flaws” (No. 120). Nothing and nobody are cast aside by the cross.