There are two fundamental aspects linked to the upcoming Synod of Bishops on young people and discernment which seem to have been omitted in many of our analyses, perhaps because of an over- simplification of the subject. First and foremost is the fact that it will be a Synod of the Church present on the five continents and not a meeting limited only to Italy or Europe and the countries where Christianity has been present from ancient times. This means that it is impossible to ignore that the Churches in which the fewest young people are present are also those of the most ancient tradition and that the younger Churches in terms of the time when they were founded are also those in which – according to their official records – people of a young age are more numerous, in line with the average age of the surrounding society.
This implies, among other things, that the transmission of the wisdom linked to seniority happens with greater difficulty unless exchanges and contacts are encouraged between Churches of countries and regions that are not homogenous: we shall have on the one hand expert Churches which speak to elderly people and struggle to find languages for the younger generations and, on the other hand, Churches with roots that are still frail and which lack references and spokespeople who have the accumulated treasure of centuries, in comparison with societies that are little by little becoming less “Christian”. And this difference in age profile in the composition of the various Churches comes in addition to those differences connected with the ethnic, cultural, economic and social characteristics that distinguish the societies inside which the Church is placed as a significant instance of a “Christian difference” rooted in the Gospel.
The second fact to be noted is that the “object” – or to some extent compatible with the very nature of a Synod of Bishops one might say the “subject” – of the reflections are the young men and women who are present or absent in our ecclesial communities. All too often we take for granted this “inclusivity”, but those who have a minimum of direct experience of the world of youth are perfectly aware of what all the most serious sociological surveys regularly record: namely that there are significant differences in behaviour and language linked to gender too.
Keeping these two preliminary observations as a critical background and focusing our reflection on the Italian and European world with which I am the most familiar, it should be stressed that in these recent decades attention has been paid to the so-called youth ministry, never before given so much emphasis in history; but unfortunately this effort has not been adequate, partly because people have continued to think in terms of an external relationship between the Church on the one hand and young people on the other. It is not enough to listen to the young and even less so to cage them in stereotypes which make them “the future of the Church” or “sentinels of the future”; instead we must consider them and feel them not as a theological category or an external entity which the Church addresses, but rather as a component of today’s Church, already at this moment actors and protagonists; we need to think of them as the “we” of the Church.
The preparatory document for the Synod calls young men and women to be “leading characters” (III, 1) who “create new opportunities (I, 3),thereby indicating to the whole Church ways of evangelization and new lifestyles. Only reciprocal listening, an exchange, a dialogue between all the members of the people of God, whatever their age and of both sexes, can trigger in the Church a process of “inclusivity” of the younger generations. This is the challenge facing the coming Synod. And the desire of Pope Francis to have it preceded by meetings at which young people may speak and feel that they share in the “conversion” requested of the whole Church has prepared favourable preconditions for moving on from a pastoral care “for young people” to a pastoral care “with young people”.
To use a phrase dear to Pope Francis, it is a question of “starting processes” rather than of making conquests, of “bringing back” young people to the Church or of measuring success by the number of replies obtained. We need “an out-going Church”, capable of joining the youth who have already frequented her in order to go where their peers are, where they reside, live, suffer and hope. We need to reach out to them in a way that is not generalized and standardizing but rather with attitudes and words that can respect and reawaken the specificity of each one: young people thirst for personal meetings, face to face dialogues, especially in our social context dominated by the virtual, and they silently ask, without succeeding in expressing themselves completely, to be “recognized”, each on his or her own path in the search for meaning and fullness of life.
For adults this means changing the way in which they see young people, accepting to question their own experiences not always managing to understand the young and yet always renewing trust in them, looking at them as at “very personal stories” and supporting their laborious search for a good life.
In this form of pastoral care “with” young people, in addition to the culture of the encounter a culture of giving freely must also emerge. If “it is not by proselytizing that the Church grows but ‘by attraction’” (Evangelii gaudium, 15), it is necessary to live every attitude of evangelization under the banner of giving freely, without anxiety about the results in terms of the number of young people involved, vocations inspired or services assumed.
The encounter that should be encouraged is the very human one in which it is possible to enter freely into a relationship with Jesus through faith and the witness borne by the evangelizer. The encounter is thus not with a doctrine, even less with a great idea or a moral, but with a living reality that intrigues, that is the bearer of meaning and the promise of a full life. Giving freely is one of the values that the young feel and live most deeply: a free encounter and the availability to walk together remain absolutely urgent needs in a new paradigm of evangelization in today’s society.
My experience of listening, encountering and walking with so many young people – very different in their culture and attitudes to interiority, spirituality, religion and the Church – convinces me increasingly that when they arrive at knowing Jesus’ life they are fascinated and moved by it. Jesus’ life as a good life in which he “did good”, that is, he chose love, closeness, relationships that were never exclusive, the care of others and especially of the needy, is not only an exemplary life but is capable of fascinating and of revealing the possibility of a “goodness” that we would like to be the inspiration for our own lives. But there is also an attraction regarding the good life lived by Jesus: his never being isolated, his living in a community, in a network of affections, his living in friendship, his relationship with nature remain very eloquent. Lastly there is great interest in his blessed life, blessed not in the sense of a life exempt from struggles, crises and contradictions, but blessed inasmuch as Jesus had a reason for which it was worth spending his life and giving his life, to the point of death: this is his joy, this his blessedness.
Young people are not insensitive or resistant to the great questions of life, but wish to be helped on this journey by trustworthy adults who know how to guide them without making demands and without withholding on paths that are oriented towards fullness of life and of love.