HENRITZE: Young peoples’ reality and the Church’s response

July 14, 2020

In 20 years, no one will look back and say that today’s young people do not know what it means to grow up with adversity and uncertainty. The year 2020 will likely be the defining event of Gen-Z (those born between 1995 to 2012) and Generation Alpha that follows them. The unprecedented events of this year are more than a future character of the reality in which young people live. A more appropriate metaphor would be to see them as a magnifying glass illuminating things unseen or ignored at first glance.

In 2019, Pope Francis promulgated the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Christus Vivit, which builds upon his encounters and discussions with young people at the 2018 15th general synod of bishops on young people, faith and vocational discernment. In the third chapter of the document, the Holy Father refers to young people as “the now of God.” He paints a profound picture of reality in which young people live. This reality is comprised of stage-of-life realities every generation experiences and the current realities unique to the young people of today.

The magnifying lens of 2020 clarifies many of the current realities already experienced by a great number of young people. Many young people are victims of widespread violence (CV, 72). They are often taken in by ideologies then used and exploited by those in power (CV, 73), and this occurs on both sides of the political spectrum. Many young people suffer from various forms of marginalization and social exclusion for a plethora of reasons (CV, 74). Young people live in the reality of a throw-away culture in which they themselves are discarded when no longer seen a useful or valuable (CV, 78).

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the entire world into a prolonged digital landscape filled with digital meetings, classrooms and gatherings that often leave one feeling drained. Even before the term social distancing became a buzzword, young people today already spent more time in digital environments than they did face-to-face with other people. Here, the magnifying glass illuminates the fact that “the digital environment is also one of loneliness, manipulation, exploitation and violence...” (CV, 88).

Despite what seems like a bleak reality, Pope Francis exhorts young people to embrace the hope and joy brought about by a profound relationship with Jesus Christ, who “makes His presence felt amid these crosses borne by young people” (CV, 83). One of the most profound ways that Christ makes His presence known is through His Church, which is called an instrument of peace and healing. It is not the Church as a “hierarchy” of clergy or a collection of buildings and teachings which the Holy Father is referring to. It is the Church as the people of God, as disciples of Jesus Christ, who must manifest the healing and peace of Christ.

When we look at the reality of young people today, amplified by the pandemic events, racial injustice and every other challenge of this year, are we able to weep for young people? It’s easy to clump them together with the abstract concept of “youth,” but this robs them of their identity and dignity. “Youth” does not exist; there exists only young people, each with the reality of his or her own life” (CV, 71). Can you, as a disciple and witness of our Lord Jesus Christ, radiate His love to a young person who struggles with the weight of their current reality?

I invite you to prayerfully ask the same questions that Pope Francis asks himself: “Can I weep? Can I weep when I see a child who is starving, on drugs, or on the street, homeless, abandoned, mistreated, or exploited as a slave of society? Or is my weeping only the self-centered whining of those who cry because they want something else?” (CV, 70). †

Brian Henritze is an associate director with the Office of Adolescent Catechesis and Evangelization.