Check into any media and watch the advertising. You’ll see that it’s mostly aimed at young people. Ads aimed at older folks sell the same products — but as ways of recovering lost youth.
We live in a youth-centered culture. Entire industries turn on the opinions of adolescents.
The Catholic Church is no exception. Since 1985, its World Youth Days have drawn crowds numbering in the millions to spots as scattered as Manila, Kraków, Rio, and Denver.
To the world, this focus on youth is a fairly recent phenomenon. To the Church it’s as old as the gospel.
With the gospel, however, it arrived as something new.
We could, in fact, speak of early Christianity as the time “When Children Became People.” That is the title of a recent book by Norwegian historian O.M. Bakke (Augsberg Fortress, $17). Bakke argues that Christianity transformed the way people live their young years, and the change was much for the better.
The ancient Greeks and Romans admired young physiques, but they were little interested in the intellectual contributions or emotional experience of anyone under the age of 20.
The philosopher Plato considered children to be like animals, only worse because they were more intractable. Aristotle believed that young people, like women and slaves, lacked sufficient reason to participate in society.
Roman law treated minors as property, to be disposed of as their fathers wished. A father had the authority (though rarely exercised) to condemn a child to death for misdeeds. Fathers also had the right to reject a newborn baby and demand its death. Infanticide was a routine part of family life in traditional Roman and Greek society and was defended by the philosophers.
At the beginning of the second century, the Roman governor Pliny wrote of the “rewards of childlessness” and said that having even one child was a “burden.” The historian Tacitus, writing around the same time, spoke of the “powerful attractions of childlessness.”
To the poor, children were useful as laborers. To the upper classes, they were admired as sex objects. Pedophilia was considered normal in the upper circles of Greek and Roman society. It appears everywhere in classical literature. Socrates openly practiced pederasty, and so did the Roman emperors, most of whom kept boy lovers at the imperial court.
In such a world, Christianity emerged as a revolutionary movement — and one of its most revolutionary attitudes was its reverence for the dignity of young people.
“Let the children come to me,” Jesus told his disciples (Matthew 19:14). He had to tell them that because the disciples were shooing the little ones away from adult society.
Jesus summoned the children because, he said, “to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
He went even further and praised children as models of Christian life: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). These lines contained a new world order — a society in which young people were welcome as active contributors.
The early Christian Fathers found many radical new principles implicit in Jesus’ simple statements. For example, Christians tended to encourage their young to think in terms of vocational freedom.
In traditional Roman society, girls were customarily married off at age 11 or 12 to a man more than twice their age. The marriage was arranged by the girl’s father. The girl had the right to refuse the husband her father’s choice, but her father had the authority to put her to death for doing so.
The early Fathers, most notably Clement of Alexandria, argued forcefully against the practice of marrying child brides and insisted that Christians must reject this custom.
The Fathers also called for universal respect of the vocational choices of young people. For the first time in history, girls and young women had the right to forego marriage entirely and consecrate their lives to Christ. The earliest Christian documents testify that many young people made the commitment to virginity and celibacy.
Young people emerged in important roles in the early Church. St. Aquilina of Byblos (no relation to the author), a Lebanese saint of the third century, was a model evangelist who converted a passel of her classmates. St. Tarcisius of Rome was a youth who took the Eucharist to the homebound sick in Rome. Both Aquilina and Tarcisius died as martyrs.
Some historians believe it was the public torture of St. Agnes of Rome, at the beginning of the fourth century, that finally swayed Roman public opinion to favor an end to persecution. The crowds marveled at the courage and eloquence of 12-year-old Agnes.
Within a century, she was the subject of tributes and biographies by several of the world’s leading intellectuals: St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Augustine of Hippo, Pope Damasus I, and the poet Prudentius of Rome.
Christian youth were prized not for their usefulness or their physical beauty, but because they were people, created in God’s image and likeness. As such, they were children of God and not the property of men.
This had very practical consequences. Children and adolescents were full members of the Church, and they could participate in Christian society in ways unimaginable in old Rome.
An adolescent named Origen taught adults in the intellectual capital of Egypt. St. Agnes exercised more influence in the Roman Church than even adult pagan females could muster in their sexist society. Young women had a voice in the Church; outside the Church, pagan women were confined to silence.
Young people were welcome to participate in the central mysteries of faith. The Church encouraged parents to baptize their sons and daughters as babies, and some churches even admitted infants to Holy Communion.
“Let the children come to me,” Jesus said. “To such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
To such also belonged the Church on earth and its future.
This is the radical and revolutionary message of Christianity — not the acknowledgment that children can have marketing clout, but that they have the power to live the life of Jesus Christ right now in its fullness.
Mike Aquilina is a contributing editor to Angelus and the author or editor of more than 50 books on Catholic themes, including “The Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers,” “The Mass of the Early Christians” and “Love in the Little Things: Tales of Family Life.” He is a popular speaker and EWTN television host and has lectured in the U.S. Capitol, Franciscan University, Penn State University, UCLA and elsewhere. He is also a poet and a songwriter. His poetry, collected in the volume, “Terms and Conditions,” has appeared in U.S. literary journals, and his works have been translated in many different languages.
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