By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

Recently the author had a discussion with a high-school teacher who was preoccupied about the state of mind of many high-school students that she accompanies until they leave the secondary school. According to the teacher there is a lack of “intellectual curiosity” and difficulty in getting the high- school graduates interested in universal subjects which have no direct impact on their school marks. She also noted a “lack of enthusiasm” on the side of her pupils to inform themselves about what is known as “Voluntary Social Year” where high school graduates can spend a voluntary year by engaging in different “social projects”- ranging from work with young handicapped people (one pupil experienced in a camp in New York) or in peace projects, or in helping to build homes and hospitals in conflict areas.

At the same time the European press, in particular the German press, since several weeks plays up the so called “Fridays for future” movement.  Every Friday (skipping the obligatory school hours) young school kids gather for protest marches, who chant slogans that the climate conditioned “apocalypse of our planet” is coming and that urgent measures must be taken by politicians to halt the climate change. They follow the hype around the young Swedish girl, calling upon young people to make panic alert in society and warn about the coming “apocalypse” (“what matters learning in school when we are dead tomorrow”), revealing a fundamentally distorted concept concerning the future orientation of young people.

Truth expressed by recent Vatican Youth Synod 

A voice which has intentionally not been heard and discussed enough in the global debate about the youth is the Youth Synod which took place in the Vatican (3.-28. October), where under the guidance of Pope Francis several hundred bishops, laypersons, experts and youth representatives from around the globe discussed about the question of how to give direction and orientation to our present youth. Many of the ideas discussed were resumed in a document (“exhortation”) which Pope Francis published 25th of march 2019.The document is written in a very optimistic and mobilizing way, since contrary to the panic mongers among the youth, it analyses very skillfully what it is that young people today want:  According to the papal document “young people want to experience and seek powerful emotion.”  However they will not experience them by accumulating “material objects, spending money, chasing desperately after the things of this world.”  Much of the longing in the hearts of young people can be summed up in the word “restlessness.”  Hence: “To talk about young people is to talk about promise and talk about joy.” (Paragraph 139) Young people have so much strength; they are able to look ahead with hope. A young person is a promise of life that implies a certain degree of tenacity. There is however one temptation that often keeps the youth back, which is anxiety. “Our best dreams are only attained through hope, patience and commitment and not in haste. At the same time we should not be hesitant, afraid to take chances or make mistakes.” He therefore advises them to “take risks, even if it means making mistakes.”

As an example and model for the young he presents the famous Vietnamese Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, who when being  imprisoned in a concentration camp, refused to do nothing but await the day when he would be set free. He chose “to live the present moment, filling it to the brim with love.” He decided: “I will seize the occasions that present themselves every day; I will accomplish ordinary actions in an extraordinary way… This youthful day may be your last, and so it’s worth the effort to live it as enthusiastically and fully as possible.”

In reference to an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” he adds another dimension, that of “fraternity” and urges the young not to allow “ourselves to be robbed of fraternity. “I ask young people to go beyond their small group and to build ‘social friendship’ where everyone works for the common good.”

The papal document takes note of the fact that today many young people are ready to commit themselves to initiatives of volunteer work, active citizenship and social solidarity. They need to be accompanied and encouraged to use their talents and skills creatively, and to be encouraged to take up their responsibilities. Social engagement and direct contact with the poor remain fundamental ways of finding or deepening one’s faith and the discernment of one’s vocation…. It was also noted that the young are prepared to enter  political life so as to build the common good. “Today, thank God, many young people in parishes, schools, movements and university group often go out to spend time with the elderly and the infirm, or to visit poor neighborhoods, or to meet people’s needs through ‘nights of charity’. Very often they realize that they receive much more than they give.”(171) “Other young people take part in social programs that build houses for the homeless, or reclaim contaminated areas or offer various kinds of assistance to the needy.”(172)

Pope Francis encourages the young in this effort to socially engage, because “I know that your young heart wants to build a better world. I have been following news reports of the many young people throughout the world who have taken to the streets to express the desire for a more just and fraternal society …The young want to be protagonists of change. Please, do not leave it to others to be protagonists of change. You are the ones who hold the future!”…. “Above all fight for the common good, serve the poor, be protagonists of the revolution of charity and service, capable of resisting the pathologies of consumerism and superficial individualism.”(174)

Engaging different generations to build a better world

The Pope warns that those young people who work with energy and dynamism for a better future often are tempted to give little “attention to the memory of the past from which they come, in particular the many gifts transmitted to them by their parents, their grand- parents. Hence he underlines (191) that “the World has never benefited, nor will it ever benefit, from a rupture between generations (…). When intergenerational relationships exist, a collective memory is present in communities, as each generation takes up the teachings of its predecessors and in turn bequeaths a legacy to its successors. In this way they provide frames of reference for firmly establishing a new society.”

Essentially the Pope warns that in order to reach out to today’s youth  and lead them to discover their own way of life is not possible by way of “indoctrination,” but by actively accompanying them in the effort to build a better future and discover their true “vocation.”

“To respond to our vocation we need to foster and develop all that we are. This has nothing to do with inventing ourselves out of nothing. It has to do with finding out our true selves in the light of God and letting our lives flourish and bear fruit… Your vocation inspires you to bring out the best in yourself for the Glory of God and the good of others.” And he adds that in the life of each young person this “being there for others,” normally has to do with two basic issues: forming a new family and work. (257)

He calls upon the young to swim against the tide. “Yes, I am asking you to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility, incapable of true love.”  He urges the young not to listen to those voices who declare that marriage is today out of fashion but to opt for marriage as well as to engage in “work,” which is “an expression of human dignity, a path of development and of social inclusion. It is a constant stimulus to grow in responsibility and creativity, a protection against the tendency towards individualism and personal gratification.”

Young is a State of Mind

Youth is more than simply a period of time; it is a state of mind (!) (34) and the Second Vatican Council spoke about the “Church as the real youth of the world,”  the document states. The pope critically remarks that a Church which is always on the defensive, losing her humility and not  “listening to others”, leaving no room for questions , “loses her youth and turns into a museum. How then will she be able to respond to the dreams of young people?”(44)

The Pope gives particular attention to the briefings he got during the synod about the experiences of our young people: The “synod fathers acknowledged with sorrow that many young people today live in war zones and experience violence in countless different forms -kidnapping, extortion, organized crime, human trafficking, slavery and sexual exploitation, wartime rape and so forth. Other young people, because of their faith, struggle to find their place in society and endure various kinds of persecution, even murder. Many young people whether by force or lack of alternatives, live by committing crimes and acts of violence: child soldiers, armed criminal gangs, drug trafficking, terrorism and so on. The violence destroys many young lives. Abuse and addiction, together with violence and wrongdoing, are some of the reasons that send young people in prison, with a higher incidence in certain ethnic and social groups.”(72) “Many young people are taken in by ideologies, used and exploited as cannon fodder or a strike force to destroy, terrify or ridicule others. Others suffer forms of marginalization and social exclusion for religious, ethnic or economic reasons.”(75) “We weep when we think of all those young people who have already lost their lives du to poverty and violence and we ask society to be a caring mother.”(79)

The negative side of our present culture is that it exploits the image of the young. “Beauty is associated with a youthful appearance, cosmetic treatments that hide the traces of our time… Some young people flee oppressive family traditions into a globalized word.  In their families there is mutual estrangement.”(81)

Social networks – the good and bad sides

The document points out (87) that the web and social networks have created a new way to communicate and bond. They are a public square were the young spend much of their time and meet one another easily, even though not all have equal access to it, particularly in some regions of the world. However they “provide an extraordinary opportunity for dialogue, encounter and exchange between persons, as well as an access to information and knowledge. Moreover the digital world is one of social and political engagement and active citizenship, and it can facilitate the circulation of independent information providing effective protection for the most vulnerable and publicizing violations of their right.  In many countries the internet and social networks already present a firmly established forum for reaching and involving young people, not least in pastoral initiatives and activities.”

What is however “negative about today’s digital communication is that the digital environment is also one of loneliness, manipulation, exploitation and violence even to the extreme case of the dark web.  Hence new forms of violence spread through social media- cyber bullying. The internet is also a channel for spreading pornography and the exploitation of persons for sexual purposes or through gambling” and huge economic interests operate in the digital world, capable of exercising forms of control and manipulating conscience.

The pope refers to a document which was put together by 300 young people worldwide for the synod, which pointed out, that “online relationships can become inhuman, prevent us to see the other and distort perception of sexuality.”

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