In his new apostolic exhortation, Christus Vivit, “Christ is alive,” Pope Francis writes a letter to young people, encouraging them to follow their dreams and to pursue the vocation that God is calling them to.

“In my life, Christus Vivit affirms that the dreams and desires I have as a young adult Catholic are the ways in which God is calling me to deeper relationship with Him – my vocation and my holiness are not just things that unfold outside of myself and my experience, but are rooted in the desires of my heart,” said Colleen Campbell, a 25 year-old doctoral student at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

The document, which was released on March 25, is the final piece of a series of documents related to the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, which was held Oct. 3-28, 2018.

Prior to the synod, the Vatican released a preparatory document that included questions for young people. Dioceses around the world held “listening sessions” to hear from young people who answered those questions, and bishops sent reports about those sessions to the Vatican.

In March 2018, the pope invited about 300 young people to come to Rome for a pre-synodal meeting, which resulted in a document of its own. The insights from the listening sessions and from that meeting were included in the Instrumentum Laboris, or working document, which served as a starting point for the synod.

During the October synod, the bishops and the 30 young people who were invited to attend worked together to draft the synod’s final document, which contained insights from the discussions that took place during those three weeks. Christus Vivit can be read in conversation with each piece of the synodal process.

Young adults participate in a March 2016 “Light the City,” which is an evening of prayer and street evangelization. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

A letter from a father

“My initial reaction [to Christus Vivit] was excitement at the amount of care that the Holy Father put into a letter to young people, which was a unique style for a post-synodal exhortation,” said Jonathan Lewis, the assistant secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington, who participated in the synod as an auditor. “It seemed to be written from the perspective of a parish priest to people he cared deeply about, and that was really touching. It didn’t read like some theological treatise or textbook, but as an encouraging letter.”

Lewis called Christus Vivit “the most kerygmatic papal document I’ve ever read,” meaning it teaches us “that we have to go back to that fundamental joy of the gospel, which is that Christ died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again,” and reminds us “that Christ is not some historical figure or someone to be read about in a newspaper or dusty textbook, but Christ is fully alive and calls each of us to be fully alive,” Lewis said.

Megan Philip, the coordinator of campus and young adult ministry for the Archdiocese of Washington, likewise emphasized the importance of the kerygmatic nature of the document.

“I have realized among peers, we don’t talk about faith in terms of the core saving message of the Gospel,” she said. Having a renewed focus on the kerygma has helped Philip renew her prayer life, she said, noting that she now asks herself whether she is entering into that reality of the core message of Jesus whenever she prays.

Philip also noted that seeing faith as a set of rules, rather than as that message of love, is part of the reason why young people are leaving the Church. In ministry, she said she wants to try to be “ruthlessly focused on the essential,” where instead of getting caught up in big events, she focuses on spiritual accompaniment.

Christus Vivit also emphasizes intergenerational dialogue, which Lewis said Pope Francis modeled during the synod through the way he prioritized young people’s experience. Throughout the document, the pope quotes from the synod final document and from the young adult auditors of the synod, which Lewis said shows he is “lifting up the worth” of the young people and bishops who participated.

“The vicar of Christ chooses to leave space within his own magisterial teaching for the voices of young people, and I found that very inspiring,” said Lewis.

Toward the end of the document, Pope Francis includes a section on “listening and accompaniment,” in which he outlines three kinds of sensitivity: listening to the individual, discerning where grace or temptation is present, and perceiving what is driving the other person. This emphasis on listening was another thing that Lewis said Pope Francis modeled well.

“[Pope Francis] didn’t talk much in the synod. He very much listened,” Lewis recalled. “Besides his opening address and some closing remarks, I only recall him commenting two other times in the synod hall the entire month.”

In Christus Vivit, Lewis said Pope Francis lives up to his name as Holy Father “by calling us to be holy and speaking to us as a father.”

Young adults go caroling near Dupont Circle in December 2017. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

The challenge to live boldly

In section 143 of Christus Vivit, Pope Francis writes, “Dear young people, make the most of these years of your youth. Don’t observe life from a balcony. Don’t confuse happiness with an armchair, or live your life behind a screen. Whatever you do, do not become the sorry sight of an abandoned vehicle! Don’t be parked cars, but dream freely and make good decisions. Take risks, even if it means making mistakes. Don’t go through life anaesthetized or approach the world like tourists. Make a ruckus!”

Campbell said that section “inspires me to be fearless in the pursuit of my vocation and encourages me not to give a second thought to the anxiety that can so often hold a young person back from becoming who God destined her to be.” Lewis said the section reminds him of the way that Jesus spoke in the Gospels, where He communicated through images from the culture of the people who He was speaking to, which was situated in the agriculture of first century Judea. But in Christus Vivit, Pope Francis “is really trying to inculturate Jesus now,” said Lewis.

Throughout the document, Pope Francis encourages young people to exercise leadership in the Church, and asks older people in the Church to allow them to be protagonists.

“I want to state clearly that young people themselves are agents of youth ministry,” Pope Francis wrote. “Certainly they need to he helped and guided, but at the same time left free to develop new approaches, with creativity and a certain audacity.”

Lewis noted that while Pope Francis speaks pastorally and with encouragement to young people, “There is definitely a call to responsibility too. He is not letting young people off the hook, but calling them to bold commitment.” He particularly noted the part of the document where Pope Francis says that Mary gave a strong “yes” when asked to be the mother of Jesus, rather than saying, “let’s see what happens.”

Philip said that section about Mary “really challenged me as a young adult.”

“Even when things aren’t so completely clear in my life, am I willing to give God my ‘yes’ no matter what?” she asked.

Young adults participate in the April 2019 7 Church Walk, a day of pilgrimage where they walked between seven churches in Washington. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Gaillard Teague)

Building a spiritual home

Pope Francis also discusses the importance of mentors for young people, and quotes from the pre-synodal document, which described what young adults are looking for in a mentor:  “an especially important quality in mentors is the acknowledgement of their own humanity – the fact that they are human beings who make mistakes: not perfect people but forgiven sinners.”

Lewis noted that in section 155, Pope Francis models that mentoring quality when he writes, “Prayer is a both a challenge and an adventure,” acknowledging that it can be difficult at times.

“Prayer isn't this perfectly contemplative, amazing thing, it is hard, it is dry sometimes, it is real, but the pope is saying that prayer is a challenge. That is beautiful to me,” said Lewis.

Lewis recalled that in the Archdiocese of Washington’s listening sessions leading up to the synod, many young people talked about their desire for the Church to be like a “spiritual home” for them. Pope Francis included that theme in Christus Vivit, noting that many young people “have a real sense of being orphaned.”

“To all these orphans – including perhaps ourselves – communities like a parish or school should offer possibilities for experiencing openness and love, affirmation and growth,” he wrote.

In that way, the document invites readers of all ages to think critically about how the Church interacts with young people, and whether it approaches them with the “grammar of love,” which Pope Francis notes is important.

“While this document speaks about young people, this is not only a document for young people,” said Lewis. “I think this has much to say for both young people and elders in the church, because it challenges all of us in different ways.”

Jonathan Lewis speaks about his experience as an auditor of the Synod on Young People, the Faith and Discernment during a November 2018 Theology on Tap at Buffalo Billiards in Washington, D.C. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Living out Christus Vivit

Christus Vivit does not give a list of practical next steps for youth and young adult ministry, which Lewis thinks is intentional, because Pope Francis “wants this to be the beginning, an impetus to many more conversations,” such as local synods where pastors can listen to the young people in their parish.

“I think he intentionally leaves out practical next steps, because as a Jesuit and as a teacher, he wants this to be a reflection tool for continued local discernment,” said Lewis.

In order to replicate this experience of listening to young people, Lewis encouraged parishes to not just start a new program, but rather to do something to engage young people in dialogue. For example, if a parish wants to reach out to young married couples, instead of researching a book or resource, they could instead get together 10 people and listen to their stories, Lewis said.

“That is synodal, that is what it means to walk together,” he added. “I think [Pope Francis] is really encouraging local communities to step up in their commitment to walking together with young people.”

Lewis further suggested that parishes collaborate in order to reach out to young adults in a variety of different ways, such as through sports, art, nature, or spirituality. Because it can be intimidating to take on all of those areas, “I think it requires discernment of what each parish does,” said Lewis.

“When parishes work together they can offer something in the area of art, something in the area of sports, and something in the area of pilgrimage that connects to different young people,” rather than to a homogeneous crowd or only to those young adults who are most involved in the parish, said Lewis.

Lewis outlined a few hopes he has for how people will encounter the document, starting with the hope that they will actually read it, rather than only reading reports about it.

“The document itself is spiritual reading,” he said. “It is meant to be reflected on, read slowly; not like a newspaper article you catch the highlights of [or] quickly get the idea without needing to really sit with it.”

Second, he hopes pastors will “take away the urgency of our ministry with young people today, and the great well of untapped potential energy, joy and renewal that is found when we empower and mentor young people. And that ministry with young people need not be expensive or complicated, but starts with changing a culture or implementing a culture of listening and friendship with young people.”

Finally, he reiterated a message that he gave to the bishops while in Rome for the Synod: “get to know another young person by name and listen to their story.”

“See if there is a practical way you can help them to grow and encourage them in their life,” he said. “Maybe it is a job reference, maybe it is a home cooked meal, maybe it is praying for someone daily about a decision or something they are discerning, and following up with them to let them know that you’ve been praying for them every day. Those things mean the world to young people.”