Challenge or comfort? That might well capture the question at the heart of the pastoral care of youth. In their inexperience, insecurity and anxiety, do they need to be comforted by their pastors, who make them feel more at home in the alien world of adolescence and adulthood?
Or in their willingness to try new things, their idealism and their confidence, do they need to be challenged by their pastors, to strive to be something more than the world around them expects or even encourages them to be?
With the youth synod less than six months away, that is an important question before the Church. The answer of course is both. Challenge and comfort are needed. But when it comes to youth, it might be that both St John Paul II and Pope Francis agree that young Catholics need more of the former and less of the latter.
That John Paul proposed a heroic ideal to young people is well known – and they responded in kind, not only in the massive World Youth Days, but in the individual conversions and vocations that marked the “John Paul generation”.
It may be thought that Pope Francis would not follow St John Paul II on this path. After all, his pastoral heart tends to comforting the afflicted rather than challenging the capable. His favoured image of the “field hospital” is that of a Church full of the battered and the broken, the injured and the weak. He quite rightly observes that heroic action is not to be proposed to those laying prone and wounded.
Yet when it comes to youth, the Holy Father is more likely to challenge. In his typical style, his pastoral advice is phrased in the negative, as a warning about what not to be and what not to do. Who can forget WYD 2016 in Kraków, when he told the vast assembly not to be “couch potatoes” – this, after they had walked for hours to meet him?
But the point was clear. Do not let life pass by while you watch. Engage. Take risks. Venture to do great things.
At his general audience on June 13, Pope Francis took up that theme again in an off-the-cuff meditation on the encounter of Jesus with the rich young man.
“I would like to say, especially to young people: our worst enemy is not concrete problems, no matter how serious or dramatic,” he said. “The greatest danger is a bad spirit of adaptation, which is not meekness or humility, but mediocrity, timidity.
“A mediocre youth is a young person with a future, or no?” Pope Francis continued. “No! He remains there, not growing, he will not have success.”
The Holy Father then turned to one of the saints most popular with the young: “Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati – who was a young man – said that it is necessary to live, not exist. The mediocre exist.”
The quotation that Pope Francis referred to is from one of Pier Giorgio’s letters to a friend: “To live without Faith, without a patrimony to defend, without a steady struggle for Truth, that is not living but existing.”
It is notable that Pope Francis made his remarks about the encounter of the rich young man with Jesus. In 1985, St John Paul II wrote a Letter to Youth which became something of a model of his landmark letters – to women, to the family, to artists, to the elderly.
“In the moral conscience of a person and more precisely of a young person who is forming the plan for his or her whole life, there is hidden an aspiration to ‘something more’,” John Paul wrote.
The Holy Father presented that “something more” to which young people aspire – an aspiration found also “among those who seem to be far from our religion” – as a search that ultimately finds its answer in Jesus Christ. The Letter to Youth is therefore centred upon the biblical episode of the rich young man (Mt 19:16-22; Mk 1:17-22; Lk 18:18-23), where the young man comes to Jesus with the most important question of all: what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Just as Pope Francis did last week, John Paul’s lengthy letter sees the encounter with the rich young man as an archetype of the desire of youth for something more, high ideals, true excellence, and Jesus who proposes it to them.
The mediocre life, the life that falls short of excellence, is not the Christian invitation – at least for the young. That 1985 Letter to Youth – and the pithy summary offered by Pope Francis last week – should serve as the foundational text for the youth synod.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca
This article first appeared in the June 22 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here