Pope's Exhortation to Young People: The Good, the Bad, and What Is Lacking
During a press conference in Rome on April 2, the Vatican released Pope Francis’ new post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit (“Christ is Alive”, abbreviated as CV), “the outcome of the fifteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops” on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment (Oct. 3-28, 2018).
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldiserri, General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, was joined by Bishop Fabio Fabene (Undersecretary, Synod of Bishops), Dr. Paolo Ruffini (Prefect, Dicastery for Communications), and two lay representatives to present the document, which the Pope signed on March 25 (Feast of the Annunciation) during his visit to the Holy House of Loreto (pictured above), scene of the now-infamous papal ring incident.
Addressed primarily “to all Christian young people,” but also “to the entire People of God, pastors and faithful alike” (CV, n. 3), the document’s stated purpose is “to summarize those proposals” from last year’s synod which are “considered most significant” by Pope Francis, relying on “the wealth of reflections and conversations that emerged” during the synodal process (CV, n. 4).
Having read the mammoth text in full (the English translation is over 32,500 words; 74 pages in the PDF version), I offer readers the following overview of the nine-chapter document, which contains a curious mixture of good, bad, and unnecessary contents (those interested in the Vatican’s “working summary” can find it here). In many ways, the text reminds me of something Pope St. Pius X wrote in his landmark 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (On the Doctrines of the Modernists):
“In their writings and addresses they [Modernists] seem not infrequently to advocate now one doctrine now another so that one would be disposed to regard them as vague and doubtful. … Hence, in their books you find some things which might well be expressed by a Catholic, but in the next page you find other things which might have been dictated by a rationalist.” (Pascendi, n. 18)
As we shall see, this sort of Modernist doublespeak is evident throughout the text of Christus Vivit, a document which very few in the targeted age group (16-to-29-year-olds) are likely to read due to its tedious length.
While the old adage, “Never judge a book by its cover,” is often good advice, one can judge a lot about a document by the sources on which its author has relied. Thus, a brief survey of Christus Vivit’s sources, including a few interesting statistical facts, is in order.
Of the document’s 164 endnotes, here are the top five most quoted sources found in Christus Vivit:
Synod 2018 Final Document – 55 citations
Addresses given by Francis during World Youth Day 2019 in Panama – 10 citations
Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (2018) – 9 citations
Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (2013) – 7 citations
Vatican II Documents, including Pope Paul VI’s “Address to Young Men and Women of the World” – 5 citations
Francis’ Laudato Si (2015), Amoris Laetitia (2016), and Veritatis Gaudium (2017) make cameo appearances, as do various other addresses of his, thus making Christus Vivit a sort of “Best of Pope Francis” soundtrack. Perhaps this is normal for post-synodal apostolic exhortations (I’m not an expert on them), but it strikes me as rather self-referential.
Regarding his substantial reliance on the synod’s final document (FD), it turns out that some 3,741 words are directly quoted therefrom—over 10 percent of Christus Vivit’s total content. Again, this might be par for the course, but it seems like a lot of unnecessary copy-and-pasting (indeed, several of the exhortation’s 299 paragraphs are little more than extended quotes from FD and other sources).
Recognizing the Good
To be fair, we must acknowledge that there are some good points scattered throughout Christus Vivit. This does not mean that the document as a whole is good; rather, it means it is a “mixed bag”, very much like the documents of Vatican II and post-conciliar texts, in general. Hence, when reading Christus Vivit we must put into practice St. Paul’s admonition to “prove all things: hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21)— “good” meaning, of course, that which is in conformity with Scripture, Tradition, and the Church’s constant Magisterium. With this principle in mind, here are a few examples of wheat among the chaff:
Remembering the Saints: “The heart of the Church is also full of young saints who devoted their lives to Christ,” writes Pope Francis, “many of them even to dying a martyr’s death. They were precious reflections of the young Christ; their radiant witness encourages us and awakens us from our lethargy. The Synod pointed out that ‘many young saints have allowed the features of youth to shine forth in all their beauty, and in their day they have been real prophets of change. Their example shows what the young are capable of, when they open themselves up to encounter Christ’ [FD, n. 65]. … Some saints never reached adulthood, yet they showed us that there is another way to spend our youth. Let us recall at least some of them who, each in his or her own way, and at different periods of history, lived lives of holiness.” (CV, n. 49, 50)
The Pope goes on to briefly describe Saints Sebastian, Francis of Assisi, Joan of Arc, Dominic Savio, John Bosco, and Thérèse of the Child Jesus, as well as others whose causes for canonization are more recent (nn. 51-62). Predictably, however, he also quotes from “Saints” John Paul II, Paul VI, and Oscar Romero and refers to St. Francis of Assisi as “the saint of universal fraternity, the brother of all” (CV, n. 52). This seems to me an obvious plug for his “Human Fraternity” document and recent visits to Muslim-majority countries—in other words, an attempt to keep the false “Spirit of Assisi” alive at the expense of the Saint’s real legacy.
Dangers of the Digital World: While praising positive uses of technology, Pope Francis also observes: “Indeed, ‘the digital environment is also one of loneliness, manipulation, exploitation and violence, even to the extreme case of the “dark web”. Digital media can expose people to the risk of addiction, isolation and gradual loss of contact with concrete reality, blocking the development of authentic interpersonal relationships. New forms of violence are spreading through social media, for example cyberbullying. The internet is also a channel for spreading pornography and the exploitation of persons for sexual purposes or through gambling’ [FD, n. 23].” (CV, n. 88)
This observation is absolutely true and one that all people, young and old alike, need to hear. Addiction to the Internet, smart phones, social media, online gaming, etc. is a real problem with real side effects. Dr. Patricia Wallace, author of The Psychology of the Internet (Cambridge University Press, 2015), published an academic article in 2014 called “Internet addiction disorder and youth” that is well worth reading. Similarly, a group of Italian scholars published a study on “Internet Addiction in adolescence” in the academic journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews (May 2017). These are just two examples of a vast emerging field of study whose relevance will only increase over time. Long story short, all of us (myself included) must strive to use digital devices in moderation and make sure that screen time is not overtaking prayer or family time.
Value of Traditional Devotions/Spirituality: “Many young people have come to appreciate silence and closeness to God. Groups that gather to adore the Blessed Sacrament or to pray with the word of God have also increased. We should never underestimate the ability of young people to be open to contemplative prayer. We need only find the right ways and means to help them embark on this precious experience. … We can also mention the inexhaustible spiritual riches preserved by the Church in the witness of her saints and the teaching of the great spiritual masters. Although we have to respect different stages of growth, and at times need to wait patiently for the right moment, we cannot fail to invite young people to drink from these wellsprings of new life. We have no right to deprive them of this great good.” (CV, n. 224, 229)
This is perhaps the most pleasantly surprising passage in the whole document. However, recall the words of St. Pius X concerning Modernists, that “in their books you find some things which might well be expressed by a Catholic, but in the next page you find other things which might have been dictated by a rationalist.” In the very same paragraph in which Francis praises Eucharistic adoration and traditional spirituality, he also states that “‘in many settings, young Catholics are asking for prayer opportunities and sacramental celebrations capable of speaking to their daily lives through a fresh, authentic and joyful liturgy’ [FD, n. 51]” (CV, n. 224). How about introducing young Catholics to the “wellspring of new life” which is the Traditional Roman Mass? How about fostering the zeal of those who issued a call for wider access to truly “authentic” liturgy and catechesis? Did the Church’s “saints and…great spiritual masters” ever ask for a “fresh” liturgy?
Whether they like it or not, Pope Francis and the rest of the Church’s hierarchy must recognize that younger Catholics are craving Tradition, not novelty, and no amount of Modernist black-out can change this increasingly obvious fact. The proof is found in the overflowing seminaries/religious houses and thriving chapels/parishes of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (ICRSS), traditional religious orders, and diocesan Traditional Mass communities throughout the world. Tradition is thriving while Modernism is literally dying. It’s time to face this fact.
Emphasis on God’s Fatherhood: “Perhaps your experience of fatherhood has not been the best. Your earthly father may have been distant or absent, or harsh and domineering. Or maybe he was just not the father you needed. I don’t know. But what I can tell you, with absolute certainty, is that you can find security in the embrace of your heavenly Father, of the God Who first gave you life and continues to give it to you at every moment. He will be your firm support, but you will also realize that He fully respects your freedom” (CV, n. 113).
I would add three important points:
God is our Father by grace, not by nature. It is only through faith and Baptism that we receive “the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba (Father)” (Rom. 8:15; cf. John 1:11-13, 3:1-6). Hence, there is no “universal fraternity”, as Pope Francis calls it, apart from Christ. “Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father” (1 John 2:23).
While God “fully respects” the free will He gave us, “He hath given no man license to sin” (Eccl. [Sir.] 15:21). As the best of fathers, He expects His children to “live soberly and justly and godly in this world” (Tit. 2:12) with the help of His grace—always ready to forgive the contrite, while calling all to sanctity: “Be ye holy, because I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2; 1 Pet. 1:16).
Young men must take seriously their own call to fatherhood, whether natural or spiritual, and learn what it means to be “a man after [God’s] own heart” (Acts 13:22) (see here for further insights).
Exposing the Bad
Having seen some positive elements, we will now examine some of the more pernicious passages in Christus Vivit, which cover a myriad of the Pope’s usual themes (emphasis added throughout).
Concerning the Church and Need for “Change”
“…the Church should not be excessively caught up in herself but instead, and above all, reflect Jesus Christ. This means humbly acknowledging that some things concretely need to change, and if that is to happen, she needs to appreciate the vision but also the criticisms of young people.” (CV, n. 39)
“[Young people] do not want to see a Church that is silent and afraid to speak, but neither one that is always battling obsessively over two or three issues. To be credible to young people, there are times when she needs to regain her humility and simply listen, recognizing that what others have to say can provide some light to help her better understand the Gospel. A Church always on the defensive, which loses her humility and stops listening to others, which leaves 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? Even if she possesses the truth of the Gospel, this does not mean that she has completely understood it; rather, she is called to keep growing in her grasp of that inexhaustible treasure.” (CV, n. 41)
For starters, let us be clear: The Church’s divine constitution cannot change. Her dogmas cannot change. Her disciplines which guard her dogmas (e.g. the impossibility of admitting unrepentant public adulterers to the sacraments) cannot change. Whatever “things” Pope Francis has in mind that “concretely need to change”, neither “the vision” nor the “criticisms of young people” are relevant when it comes to realities which by their nature are immutable.
Furthermore, the Church is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), not young people, and like it or not, she—the Church Militant—has a duty to defend “the truth of the Gospel” against the enemies of God—for example, those who promote abortion, contraception, divorce and “remarriage”, sodomy, heresy, and other such grave evils.
This incessant call for the Church to “be humble” and “listen to others” is a subversive attack on her divinely constituted role as Mother and Teacher, as is the specious claim that she has not “completely understood” the Deposit of Faith entrusted to her. It was due to such errors that St. Pius X instituted The Oath Against Modernism (1910)—mandatory for “all clergy, pastors, confessors, preachers, religious superiors, and professors in philosophical-theological seminaries” until its abolition by Paul VI in 1967—which states (in part): “I also condemn every error according to which, in place of the divine deposit which has been given to the spouse of Christ to be carefully guarded by her, there is put a philosophical figment or product of a human conscience that has gradually been developed by human effort and will continue to develop indefinitely.”
The Church does indeed posses the truth of the Gospel, and she does not need the “criticisms of young people” or the world, which “is seated in wickedness” (1 John 5:19), in order to infallibly proclaim it.
“For example, a Church that is overly fearful and tied to its structures can be invariably critical of efforts to defend the rights of women, and constantly point out the risks and the potential errors of those demands. Instead, a living Church can react by being attentive to the legitimate claims of those women who seek greater justice and equality. A living Church can look back on history and acknowledge a fair share of male authoritarianism, domination, various forms of enslavement, abuse and sexist violence. With this outlook, she can support the call to respect women’s rights, and offer convinced support for greater reciprocity between males and females, while not agreeing with everything some feminist groups propose.” (CV, n. 42)
The Catholic Church, beginning with her Divine Founder, has done more to defend the dignity and legitimate rights of women than any other institution in the history of the world. As the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on “Woman” summarizes:
“It was the teaching of Christ which first brought freedom to the female sex, wherever this teaching was seriously taken as the guide of life. His words applied as well to women: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you’ (Luke 12:31). He restored the original life-long monogamous marriage, raised it to the dignity of a sacrament, and also improved the position for woman in purely earthly matters. The most complete personal duality is expressed in the Apostolic exhortation: ‘For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ … there is neither male nor female. For ye are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:27-28; cf. 1 Cor. 11:11). Most decisive, however, for the social position of woman was the teaching of Christ on the nobility of freely chosen virginity as contrasted with marriage, to the embracing of which the chosen of both sexes are invited (Matt. 19:29). …
From the days of the Apostles, Christianity has never failed to seek and to defend the emancipation of woman in the meaning of its Founder. … The admiring exclamation of the heathen: ‘What women there are among the Christians!’ is the most eloquent testimony to the power of Christianity. The great Church Fathers praise not only their mothers and sisters, but speak of Christian women in general in the same terms of respect as the Gospel.”
For detailed critique of the feminist movement, I highly recommend Stefanie Nicholas’ inaugural CFN article, “Challenging Feminism At Its Roots”.
“Young people are aware that the body and sexuality have an essential importance for their lives and for their process of growth in identity. Yet in a world that constantly exalts sexuality, maintaining a healthy relationship with one’s body and a serene affective life is not easy. For this and other reasons, sexual morality often tends to be a source of ‘incomprehension and alienation from the Church, inasmuch as she is viewed as a place of judgment and condemnation’. Nonetheless, young people also express ‘an explicit desire to discuss questions concerning the difference between male and female identity, reciprocity between men and women, and homosexuality’ [FD, n. 39].” (CV, n. 81)
While the acronym “LGBT” is not found in Christus Vivit (as it was in the synod’s Instrumentum Laboris), Pope Francis apparently could not resist including this mention of young people’s “explicit desire to discuss…homosexuality.” The implication, of course, is that the status of homosexuality as an intrinsic disorder is an open question, as well as the gravely sinful nature of homosexual acts. Such is not the case, however, and the Church’s hierarchy has a strict duty to tell young people the truth, namely, that Almighty God settled the issue a very long time ago—when He created Adam and Eve “male and female” and told them, “Increase and multiply” (Gen. 1:27-28). And just to make sure we got the picture, He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, whose male inhabitants were bent on raping other males (cf. Gen. 19:1-9), and defined the sin of sodomy as “an abomination” (Lev. 18:22, 20:13). For those who flout divine and natural law on this matter, St. Paul warns that they will not “possess the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9).
Concerning the Abuse Crisis
“Clericalism is a constant temptation on the part of priests who see ‘the ministry they have received as a power to be exercised, rather than a free and generous service to be offered. It makes us think that we belong to a group that has all the answers and no longer needs to listen or has anything to learn’. Doubtless, such clericalism can make consecrated persons lose respect for the sacred and inalienable worth of each person and of his or her freedom.” (CV, n. 98)
Once and for all, clerical sodomy—not “clericalism”(!)—is at the root of the abuse crisis. This is a statistical fact, yet the leaders of the recent Vatican summit (including Pope Francis) continue to ignore it. If anything in the Church needs to change, it is their willful denial of the primary cause of clergy sexual abuse.
“…if you see a priest at risk, because he has lost the joy of his ministry, or seeks affective compensation, or is taking the wrong path, remind him of his commitment to God and his people, remind him of the Gospel and urge him to hold to his course. In this way, you will contribute greatly to something fundamental: preventing these atrocities from being repeated.” (CV, n. 100)
Is Pope Francis really advising minors to confront potentially (if not actually) abusive priests? Since the targeted age range for the synod was “16-29 years” (CV, n. 68), it would appear so, which is alarming and unacceptable. If a young person—or anyone, for that matter—encounters a priest “seek[ing] affective compensation” (i.e. inappropriate attention/advances), the correct response is to flee the situation and immediately report the priest. It is not the responsibility of minors to stop “these atrocities from being repeated.”
“We are saved by Jesus because He loves us and cannot go against His nature. We can do any number of things against Him, yet He loves us and He saves us.” (n. 120)
“Friendship with Jesus cannot be broken.” (CV, n. 154)
By definition, mortal sin kills the life of grace in the soul and separates one from God. Those who die in a state of mortal sin go to hell. This is basic Catholic doctrine, and a reality which the three children of Fatima saw with their own eyes on July 13, 1917. The notion that God “saves us” no matter what we do, and that it is impossible to lose His friendship, contradicts the Gospel. “You are My friends,” Our Lord tells us, “if you do the things that I command you” (John 15:14), and also, “if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:17).
“…you won’t become holy and find fulfillment by copying others. Imitating the Saints does not mean copying their lifestyle and their way of living holiness…You have to discover who you are and develop your own way of being holy, whatever others may say or think. Becoming a saint means becoming more fully yourself, becoming what the Lord wished to dream and create, and not a photocopy.” (CV, n. 162)
Imitating the “lifestyle” of the Saints is at the heart of the religious life, a subject which the Pope barely mentions in Christus Vivit. Think about it: Benedictines strive to imitate St. Benedict by following his Rule. The same is true of Franciscans, Poor Clares, Dominicans, Discalced Carmelites, Jesuits, and others in relation to their respective founders. The whole point of embracing the Rule of a particular order is that it is a time-tested and Church-approved path to sanctity. It is not about trying to be a “photocopy”.
Moreover, imitating the Saints is a Biblical principle intended for all the faithful. “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us,” wrote St. Paul to the Thessalonians (2 Thess. 3:7). And what should this imitation look like? Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D. explains in his spiritual classic, Divine Intimacy:
“Poverty, humility, detachment from earthly goods; meekness of heart, resignation and patience in sorrow, uprightness, hunger for justice; kindness and understanding toward one’s neighbor; purity of mind and heart; peacefulness of spirit and bearer of peace; fortitude and generosity, which, for love of God, embrace every suffering and endure every injustice: such are the characteristics of the life led by the saints on earth, and such must be our program, too, if we wish to attain sanctity as they did.”
When we follow the example of the Saints, we are following Christ Himself, as St. Paul tells us: “Be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). And the message of all the Saints to us can be summed up in these words of St. John the Baptist: “He [Christ] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Concerning Youth Ministry and Catechesis
“In some places, it happens that young people are helped to have a powerful experience of God, an encounter with Jesus that touched their hearts. But the only follow-up to this is a series of ‘formation’ meetings featuring talks about doctrinal and moral issues, the evils of today’s world, the Church, her social doctrine, chastity, marriage, birth control and so on. As a result, many young people get bored, they lose the fire of their encounter with Christ and the joy of following Him; many give up and others become downcast or negative. Rather than being too concerned with communicating a great deal of doctrine, let us first try to awaken and consolidate the great experiences that sustain the Christian life.” (CV, n. 212)
The average parish religious education or youth ministry program has not been “too concerned with communicating a great deal of doctrine” for the past several decades, which is precisely the problem! The Church in America and much of Europe (no doubt elsewhere, as well) now has three generations of Catholics since the close of Vatican II (1965)—Generation X, Millennials, and now Generation Z—who, by and large, have received (or are now receiving) profoundly deficient catechesis and thus know very little of substance concerning the Faith. This lack of sound doctrine, rooted in the word of God (Scripture and Tradition), has deprived countless souls of a true knowledge of Christ and stunted their spiritual growth, leaving them to be “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine by the wickedness of men, by cunning craftiness, by which they lie in wait to deceive” (Eph. 4:14). When the light of true faith is snuffed out, good morals are quickly extinguished as well, which is exactly what we see in the nations that used to form Christendom.
With his exaltation of “experience” over doctrine, Pope Francis once again exhibits the Modernist frame of mind condemned by St. Pius X in Pascendi (cf. nn. 14-15).
“It would be a serious mistake to think that in youth ministry ‘the kerygma [NB: basic truths concerning the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ] should give way to a supposedly more ‘solid’ formation. Nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation. All Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma’ [Evangelii Gaudium, n. 165] and incarnating it ever more fully in our lives.” (CV, n. 214)
In one sense, this assertion is true, as the renowned Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. (1877-1964) sums up: “The profoundest truths of all, and the most vital, are in fact those elementary verities which, through long meditation and deep thought, have become the norm of our lives; those truths, in other words, which are the object of our habitual contemplation.”
On the other hand, this master Thomist and spiritual giant also describes the role that theology (systematic study of the Faith) plays in building up our faith and interior life:
“In order to restore our cathedrals, to set well-hewn stones into their proper place, it is necessary to erect a scaffolding; but when once the stones have been replaced the scaffolding is removed and the cathedral once more appears in all its beauty. In a similar way theology helps us to demonstrate the solidity of the foundations of the doctrinal edifice, the firmness of its construction, the proportion of its parts; but when it has shown this, it effaces itself to make place for that supernatural contemplation which proceeds from a faith enlightened by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, from a faith that penetrates and savors the truths of God, a faith that is united with love.”
In other words, studying the reasons why the Catholic Faith is true, good, and beautiful—going beyond the “the word of the beginning of Christ…to things more perfect” (Heb. 6:1)—is a natural and necessary part of spiritual formation. Infused contemplation of the “elementary verities” of Faith generally comes only after years of utilizing the “scaffolding” of study, prayer, and the practice of virtue. In short, one cannot “penetrate and savor the truths of God,” as Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange says, if one does not know the truths of God.
Like the Youth Synod last fall, the Pope’s new Apostolic Exhortation seems quite preoccupied with natural goods and temporal concerns while neglecting what St. Ignatius of Loyola calls the “Principle and Foundation” in his Spiritual Exercises: “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.” It is tragic that the Church’s first Jesuit Pope failed to use this opportunity to introduce young people to the life and teachings of St. Ignatius, whose pursuit of worldly honor and sensual pleasure prior to his conversion makes him a very relatable figure.
Like Ignatius did while recovering from a serious injury, the youth of today must spend time reflecting on the life of Christ and the Saints and realize that it is only the pursuit of God—His Kingdom, His righteousness, and His glory—coupled with the good of souls (first and foremost, their salvation) which brings true fulfillment to our lives and imbues our days with holy passion and purpose. Let us pray that Our Lord will look kindly upon today’s youth, deliver them from the bondage of error and sin, and lead them to embrace His call to sanctity.
For an excellent discussion of “The Role of Young People in the Church and the World Today”, watch the following video conference presented by Fr. Daniel Couture, SSPX (District Superior of Canada) at The Fatima Center’s youth conference last fall.