By the time he was 30, Karol Wojtyla had endured the death of two parents, suffered through a Nazi occupation, earned a doctorate, and become a priest of Jesus Christ.
By the time she was 30, Josephine Bakhita had been captured as a slave, endured brutal beatings, run away from slave traders, crossed a desert by camel, and taken up residence in an Italian convent of nuns.
By the time he was 30, Francis of Assisi had been a prisoner of war, renounced a life of comfort, become a mystic, founded a community, and taken up a mission to rebuild Christ’s Church.
Therese of Lisieux never made it to 30. She lived her little way of love until she died at 24. One hundred years later, John Paul II declared her a Doctor of the Church.
Young people can do incredible and important things for God. They can endure difficult circumstances with grace. They can preach the Gospel, and witness to Christ.
By the time he was 30, Raymond Arroyo had also done something big for the Lord: he'd launched “The World Over Live,” a long-running EWTN television show dedicated to news and conversation from a perspective of faith.
Arroyo knows that young people can do great things. This is why it was surprising that on his television program this week, he asked guests: “Why are we listening to young people, who really haven’t experienced a lot of life, or of God, frankly?”
Arroyo and his guests were discussing a Vatican gathering of young people from around the world, invited to share their perspectives on the challenges of the modern era, and the role the Church can play in the evangelization and formation of youth, in advance of an October synod of bishops on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.”
To some young people, the show’s discussion implied that young people are constitutionally unable to cogently articulate their views, and that they have little to contribute to a discussion about evangelization, catechesis, and pastoral care.
Some young people found this offensive-- I know this because before I finished my coffee this morning, I got texts, DMs, and phone calls saying so, from young and faithful priests, from young mothers of large families, and from faithful Catholics engaged in youth ministry and missionary work.
I agree with their criticism. Some of the discussion seemed dismissive of young people, alternately suggesting that they were being used as patsies, that their views had little value, or that their apparently poor catechesis rendered their perspective unhelpful. And the idea that young people necessarily have limited life experience or spiritual wisdom runs contrary to 2,000 years of holiness among the Church’s youth.
I don’t know what Arroyo intended- I doubt he meant to sound dismissive of young people on the whole. I suspect his intention, however it was executed, was to criticize the structure of the gathering, and the document it produced. I suspect he has concerns about the upcoming synod on young people.
Many people suspect that a faction of the synod’s bishops will seek to undermine the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception- claiming that openness to life is an ideal, but unachievable for many couples, who might choose in good conscience to use artificial contraception. Many people also suspect that the synod might be an occasion in which the universal call to holiness is watered down, and the Church seems to capitulate ever more to the prevailing social, sexual, and cultural norms of our time.
Those are legitimate concerns, and I share them.
Arroyo may have also, like me, found parts of the document produced by the Vatican’s youth meeting to be confusing, agenda-driven, and inconsistent. The document says some beautiful and important things, and some things that don’t make sense. But it reflects, or at least is intended to reflect, perspectives actually expressed by young people, Catholic and non-Catholic, from around the world.
So why did the Church ask young people for their perspectives? She asked because listening is the first step in evangelization and formation. Jesus began many of his most profound evangelical encounters by asking questions. The answers he got were sometimes truthful, sometimes silly, and sometimes confusing. But they began a conversation, and they allowed the Lord to respond to the person right in front of him, leading a soul to conversion.
I spend a lot of time listening to my children. Sometimes they say beautiful things. Sometimes I have no idea what they’re saying. Sometimes, what they’re saying is juvenile- they’re children, so that makes sense. But I listen to them so that I know them, understand them, and begin to respond to their interests, their hopes, their confusion, and their needs. This doesn’t mean that I will change my commitment to forming them in faith. It means only that I love them, respect them, and care enough about them to give them space to share their views. I’ve learned to listen to my children mostly from my wife, of course, but she learned it from Jesus.
Arroyo is right to be concerned about what might come of the upcoming synod. All Catholics should urge our bishops to stand for truth, and pray the Church’s leaders will be strong and courageous in promoting and defending the truth. We should recognize Satan, the enemy of truth.
But the question asked on “The World Over Live” is not the right question. We listen to young people to hear their perspective. Having done that, we need to ask what the Synod of Bishops will actually do with their answers. We need to ask what plan will be developed to evangelize young people living in broken families and a broken culture-- to call them to holiness, rather than validate their choices. We need to ask how we can form them - intellectually, spiritually, socially, and morally - given the vapid, pornographic, lonely, and amoral culture in which many of them were raised. And we need to ask how we can support young people already living as disciples of Jesus, among them the smart, faithful, evangelistic twentysomethings in CNA’s newsroom, who face temptations to discouragement amidst a confusing era in the Church’s own life.
Souls - those of young and old alike - are the prize. Calling young people to Jesus - Catholic or not, well-catechized or not - is the goal. The Church needs the energy, enthusiasm, and ideas of young people. And young people need the merciful love of Christ, expressed in the life of his Church.
Hearing what young people say, no matter how strongly we disagree, can be the first step to evangelizing them. Dismissing those invited to speak, rather than engaging with their ideas, will not move them toward the Lord.
“In the sharing of ideals, problems and hopes," Pope St. John Paul II said, “young people will experience living the reality promised by Jesus: ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’”
Young people, the Church wants to hear you. She wants to know you. She wants to hear your questions. And then she wants to propose that Jesus Christ is the answer to every question, every hope, every fear, and every longing in your heart, and in every human heart.