“Always be prepared to make a defense....for the hope that is in you.”
This was the verse of scripture that St. John Paul II chose to begin his 1985 apostolic letter to the youth of the world, Dilecti amici (“Dear Friends”), on the occasion of the United Nations’ proclamation of the International Year of Youth.
In his letter, he described the Church as the “custodian of fundamental truths and values” and also as “the minister of the eternal destinies that...the great human family have in God himself.” He recognized the desire among the young for “genuine brotherhood” between all people, and observed: “There can only be brothers and sisters where there is a father. And only where the Father is are people brothers and sisters.”
On the eve of this year’s Synod of Bishops, which will take place Oct. 3-28 in Rome bringing together priests, religious, laypeople and others who will discuss young people, faith, and vocational discernment, let us revisit St. John Paul II's 1985 letter to the young people of the world.
“A possession of humanity itself”
Youth itself, the pope proposed, is not merely “personal property” for the young, but rather is a “special possession belonging to everyone” that youth have a responsibility to share. Youth “is a possession of humanity itself,” the Pope said.
Hope, as a Christian virtue, is necessarily “linked to the expectation of those eternal good things which God has promised to man in Jesus Christ,” namely eternal life in Heaven. Hope is also, he said, the human virtue of “expectation of the good things which man will build” using the talents given him by God. In this sense, St. John Paul II puts a great emphasis on responsibility: Adults hold ultimate responsibility for the present reality, but young people are the ones responsible for shaping the future.
“You belong to the future, just as the future belongs to you,” he wrote.
The rich young man
The structure of Dilecti amici is centered on the Gospel episode that is, he wrote, the most “complete” and “richest in content” of all of Christ's interactions with young people. In this passage from Mark, a rich young man meets with Christ and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Christ tells him to keep the commandments, to which the young man responds that he has observed the commandments of the decalogue since his youth.
"Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, 'You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me”, to which the rich young man reacts by going away sad, for he had great possessions. St. John Paul II proposed that the young man’s youth itself could be interpreted as being his greatest possession, rather than his material wealth.
“The decision to go away from Christ was definitively influenced only by external riches, what the young man possessed ("possessions"). Not by what he was! What he was...had led him to Jesus. And it had also impelled him to ask those questions which in the clearest way concern the plan for the whole of life...What must I do so that my life may have full value and full meaning?” the sainted pope wrote.
These questions, he wrote, are particularly “urgent” and “insistent” during a person’s youth; the “existential phase” of life, when a young person is trying to figure out his or her place in the world, and are especially compelling for those whose youth is marked by suffering, St. John Paul II wrote.
“You ask yourselves these questions sometimes with impatience, and at the same time you yourselves understand that the reply to them cannot be hurried or superficial...the reply must have a specific and definitive weight,” he wrote.
“These essential questions are asked in a special way by those members of your generation whose lives have been weighed down since childhood by suffering: by some physical lack or defect, some handicap or limitation, or by a difficult family or social situation... the question about the meaning and value of life becomes for them all the more essential and also particularly tragic, for from the very beginning the question is marked by the pain of existence.”
“No one is good but God alone”
What then is Christ’s response to the restlessness and questioning of young people? In the Gospel, he first responds to the young man by telling him, “No one is good but God alone.” St. John Paul II wrote that this answer points to the fact that God is love – the “source and final completion” of all morals and values. He wrote that our nature as beings made in the image of God brings us to ask these very existential questions.
“Your youth opens different prospects before you; it offers you as a task the plan for the whole of your lives,” he wrote. “Hence the question about values; hence the question about the meaning of life, about truth, about good and evil.”
“When Christ in his reply to you tells you to refer all this to God, at the same time he shows you what the source and foundation of this is in yourselves...These questions show how man without God cannot understand himself, and cannot even fulfil himself without God. Jesus Christ came into the world first of all in order to make each one of us aware of this.”
“Witness to man’s immortality”
St. John Paul II wrote that, even in a time before the internet and social media, the endless scientific and technological advances of the modern world dominate people’s “thoughts, capacities, tendencies and passions” if the purpose for their life is not aligned to Christ’s, who is, by his death and resurrection, the “witness to man’s immortality.”
“When we place ourselves in the presence of Christ, when he becomes the confidant of the questionings of our youth, we cannot put the question differently from how [the rich young man] put it: 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?'”
“Any other question about the meaning and value of our life would be, in the presence of Christ, insufficient and unessential...Without eternal life, temporal existence, however rich, however highly developed in all aspects, in the end brings man nothing other than the ineluctable necessity of death.”
“Do you know the commandments?”
Christ's response to the rich young man, telling him to keep God’s commandments, is proposed to all youth, John Paul II wrote. God’s commandments “determine the essential bases of behavior, decide the moral value of human acts, and remain in organic relationship with man's vocation to eternal life.”
“In the words of divine Revelation is inscribed the clear code of morality, of which the tablets of the Decalogue of Mount Sinai remain the key- point, and the culmination of which is found in the Gospel: in the Sermon on the Mount and in the commandment of love.”
This code of morality is also “inscribed in the moral conscience of humanity,” he wrote. The pope noted that St. Paul called conscience a “witness” to the moral law written in the gospel.
“The upright conscience responds with an interior reaction to man's corresponding deeds: it accuses or excuses,” St. John Paul II wrote. “But the conscience must not be distorted; the fundamental formulation of the principles of morality must not surrender to deformation by any kind of relativism or utilitarianism.”
The pope told young people that “Christ asks you about the state of your moral awareness, and at the same time he questions you about the state of your conscience. This is a key question for man: it is the fundamental question of your youth, one that concerns the whole plan of life which must be formed precisely in youth … The value of this plan depends in an essential way on the authenticity and rectitude of your conscience. It also depends on its sensitivity.”
“Man carries with him the treasure of conscience, the deposit of good and evil, across the frontier of death, in order that, in the sight of him who is holiness itself, he may find the ultimate and definitive truth about his whole life,” JPII wrote.
In response to Christ’s statement about the commandments, the rich young man is able to say that he has observed the commandments from his youth; in other words, he has cultivated what the saintly pope called a “moral personality.”
“It is my hope that your youth will provide you with a sturdy basis of sound principles, that your conscience will attain in these years of your youth that mature clearsightedness that during your whole lives will enable each one of you to remain always a 'person of conscience', a 'person of principles', a 'person who inspires trust', in other words, a person who is credible,” he wrote.
St. John Paul II also expressed his hope that everyone could experience the loving gaze that Christ gave to the young man in that moment, which contained “a summary and synthesis of the entire Good News...an affirmation of man and of humanity” that Christ alone is capable of giving.
“When everything would make us doubt ourselves and the meaning of our life, then this look of Christ, the awareness of the love that in him has shown itself more powerful than any evil and destruction, this awareness enables us to survive.”
"What must I do?"
For the rich young man, simply following God’s commandments does not seem to be enough, and he asks: “What do I still lack?” Christ replies: "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."
St. John Paul II described this desire to transition from following “mere moral obligations” to a “higher” and “deeper” dimension of spirituality, which he said is the first calling to the “particular vocation” of the priesthood.
“If such a call comes into your heart, do not silence it!” he wrote. “Let it develop into the maturity of a vocation! Respond to it through prayer and fidelity to the commandments!”
“During youth a person puts the question, 'What must I do?' not only to himself and to other people from whom he can expect an answer, especially his parents and teachers, but he puts it also to God, as his Creator and Father. He puts it in the context of this particular interior sphere in which he has learned to be in a close relationship with God, above all in prayer. He therefore asks God: 'What must I do?', what is your plan for my life? Your creative, fatherly plan? What is your will? I wish to do it...the young person, boy or girl, constructs his or her plan of life and at the same time recognizes this plan as the vocation to which God is calling him or her.”
This vocation could also be to marriage, the saint said, a sacrament which he warned must not be distorted.
He warned against attempts “to impose on environments and even entire societies a model that calls itself 'progressive' and 'modern',” which “transforms a human being and perhaps especially a woman from a subject into an object.”
This model reduces the whole content of love to pleasure, and nor should children, the fruit of a loving union, be seen merely as “an annoying addition.”
Seek the truth “where it is really to be found,” the saint exhorted. “If necessary, be resolved to go against the current of popular opinion and propaganda slogans! Do not be afraid of the love that places clear demands on people. These demands-as you find them in the constant teaching of the Church-are precisely capable of making your love a true love.”
“The Church and humanity entrust to you the great reality of that love which is the basis of marriage, the family and the future. The Church and humanity firmly believe that you will bring about its rebirth; they firmly believe that you will make it beautiful: beautiful in a human and Christian way,” he wrote.
"Growth in stature and in wisdom"
Family bonds that we learn about and develop as young people should lead us to “gradually experience this social bond which is wider than that of the family,” to begin to “share in responsibility for the common good” of all humanity, St. John Paul II wrote. Education plays a vital role, but “the knowledge which frees man does not depend on education alone...though education, the systematic knowledge of reality, should serve the dignity of the human person. It should therefore serve the truth.”
“Youth should be a process of 'growth' bringing with it the gradual accumulation of all that is true, good and beautiful,” he wrote. “To be truly free means to use one's own freedom for what is a true good. Continuing therefore: to be truly free means to be a person of upright conscience, to be responsible, to be a person 'for others'.”
The pope, at the close of his letter, encourages the young to ask difficult questions in their pursuit of the truth.
“My hope for you young people is that your 'growth in stature and in wisdom' will come about through contact with nature. Make time for this! Do not miss it! Accept too the fatigue and effort that this contact sometimes involves, especially when we wish to attain particularly challenging goals. Such fatigue is creative, and also constitutes the element of healthy relaxation which is as necessary as study and work.”
“I repeat these words of the Mother of God and I address them to you, to each one of you young people: 'Do whatever Christ tells you'.”