Reflections on the Meeting of Young People with the Pope and the Synod Fathers in the Paul VI Audience Hall (Vatican City, Saturday, October 6, 2018)
Fr Nicholas Gregoris
Amidst the downfalls of pouring rain on Saturday here in Rome, the Pope gathered with young people and the Synod Fathers in the dry confines of the Sala Nervi, also known as the Paul VI Audience Hall inside the Vatican City State. The Pope entered the vast Hall and made his way on foot through a dense crowd of cheering young people, including enthusiastic priests and Religious. Religious Sisters, in particular, seemed to react to him as though he were some sort of rock star.
Once the Pope was in position, a young man emerged walking inside a large balloon, and young people gyrating on stage performed a dance that had no discernible significance, but not atypical for contemporary artistic expression, especially of young people. Then a light-hearted greeting of the Pope and presentation of the Synod on Youth took place that provoked some smiles and laughter in the aula. Francis enjoyed the moment!
Testimonials of Young People.
Afterwards, some young people gave moving testimonials, including one by a young man, an Iraqi Christian refugee whose town was invaded by ISIS (known as DAESH in Arab world) in 2014. He and his family were given an ultimatum by the ISIS terrorists: convert to Islam, pay the jiza (tax of Christians required in the Koran) or prepare to be killed; they were fortunate enough to escape. The young man expressed doubt about whether Islam is a religion of peace (which must not have pleased some Vatican officials who have argued to the contrary) but said that he and his family had forgiven their ISIS persecutors.
This was followed by the performance of an Italian singer-song writer, Giovanni Cacamo, who played his ballad at a piano on stage. The theme of the song was on what is everlasting, what is eternal. The song made reference to how difficult it is for people to create lasting relationships in reality, and not just in virtuality. He then brought on stage some seeds which he said that, like relationships, need care to grow. Giovanni said that young people should switch off their cell phones every now and then in order to take a loved one or friend by the hand to accompany them.
The Importance of Grandparents.
Projected on the screen was a picture of Giovanni Cacamo as a child carrying a basket of eggs that his grandmother used to provide him. The photo was a homage to his grandparents who recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Yes, marriage can last this long, and his grandparents are proof of this.
The next guest, a woman named Valentina, spoke about how she was used to being promiscuous with men, using them to feel good – but she felt only emptiness. Her parents never got along well and often fought. Valentina never saw kind gestures of affection; her upbringing never involved tenderness and warmth: her father was an authoritarian soldier, and she never received hugs from her mother. Thus, she had a great void in her life. She then encountered God’s unconditional love through an evangelization experience on the street that included prayer, and which also led her to pray before Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Valentina felt God’s free love and felt “clean.” She left her own dreams to follow the dream of Jesus Christ in the Gospel. Valentina now feels more authentic as a human person and thinks all people are called to take a path of conversion with Jesus Christ to answer the call to holiness. After months of sleepless nights and after hours of feeling nothing before the Cross of Our Lord, she has become a woman full of peace and joy who has dedicated her life to evangelizing young people. Valentina’s path of reconciliation has helped her reconcile with her parents, recognizing their limits but also the importance of perseverance and responsibility.
Break Dancing for the Pope?
Very abruptly, after this moving testimonial, a young man began to breakdance on the stage to hip-hop music – while the bishops could be seen awkwardly clapping along in their seats beside the Pope! The meeting’s organizer congratulated the dancer, saying: “Bravissimo,” and then launched into a dialogue with some young girls on stage about “relationships.” He said that we can’t make it on our own; we need each other, our family and friends. He recounted that when he was a young lad, it didn’t matter where he was going as long as he was in the company of friends.
A young man named Claudio then stood up to recount how he had been a victim of bullying. He didn’t know how to communicate with anyone in his family. At eighteen, he began to experiment with drugs and alcohol, which became substitutes for human warmth. His family tried to help him, but they failed because, thinking he was his own god, he often refused any help. Eventually, his health worsened considerably until he met a priest who encouraged him to get the help he needed to save his life through a supportive community. He was welcomed and hugged without being judged for how he had lived. He really felt sustained by the support of those who worked with him and prayed for him continually. Claudio believes he understands now that God truly loves him as he is. Claudio learned to discover his God-given talents which he can share with others. He has a job working for a catering service and believes that God has given him a new beginning in life.
Giovanni Cacamo, seated at a piano, played Franco Battiato’s famous song, “La Cura” (“The Healing”), whose lyrics and melodies are quite beautiful; unfortunately, however, it is a rather sensual love ballad with no apparent religious significance.
God Helps Addict Overcome His Addictions.
Another testimony followed by an Italian man (Dario) who sat on the steps of the stage and conversed with the organizer of the event about his faith and marriage and how the use of pornography made him mistake pleasure for love. Pornography is not a secret vice; it is an awful addiction: You’re not free to look at anyone without undressing the person with your eyes. Dario’s mother, who had grown closer to her faith, transmitted the fire of Jesus’ love to him, beginning with a hug that she gave him. Dario had tried to commit suicide because he felt so unhappy inside, but his encounter with God allowed him to overcome the loss of his father, to become a man, to fall in love with his wife, Irene (who was sitting in the audience). The organizer remarked that Dario was courageous to give his testimony as photos of Dario and Irene together as a couple were shown on the big screen.
Another Italian fellow began to read off a card a message which his grandfather taught him, namely, that people are different from animals, free to dream and to sacrifice for those dreams. “Never give up on your dreams, lest you give up on yourself” was the message.
Then a woman named Sylvia began to play the piano. Her dream was to become a pianist, and she got engaged. Instead, however, she discovered her love for the Eucharist and her attraction to a group of Sisters who work with the poor and engage in Eucharistic adoration.
Valentina, like Sarah and Sylvia, has discerned her call to become a Sister. She felt welcomed by the Community and perceived a certain energy.
Thus far, the predominant group represented on the stage has been Italian. Strange, for a gathering of youth from around the world.
An Italian young man spoke of his problems with unemployment, beginning in 2015. He searched for work everywhere. He felt he had to leave Italy to find work but then received an invitation from a company involved in defense technologies (creation of missiles didn’t fit in with his ideals!). Nonetheless, he accepted the job. His conscience, however, convinced him that he shouldn’t follow through on the offer because he didn’t want to build a violent society. He is an engineer who is happy doing what he does.
Now a young woman speaking in Spanish described her work for a consulting firm. She met a patient who gave her goose bumps. When she inquired as to his state of health, the patient looked surprised. The patient had bone cancer with little time left to live. He was sorrowful and hopeless as he was losing everything: his life, his girlfriend. The patient asked her if she believed in God. When she replied affirmatively, the patient said: “I don’t believe in God because I feel He has abandoned me and will take everything away from me.” The woman assured the patient that Jesus is near him, more than ever before. God is putting him to the test: Are you able to follow Me even in the midst of these terrible sufferings? She reassured the patient and urged him not to fear death. He asked her if she knew the Lord’s Prayer and if they could recite it together. They then searched out the Gospel of the Day and reflected on it. Some time later, the patient wrote Anna a letter in which he thanked her for that special atmosphere in which he felt God’s love and began to face the reality of death. The patient said he will always be Anna’s guardian angel from Heaven and that he will be waiting for her in Heaven. Before leaving the stage, Anna showed the crucifix around her neck, about which she had spoken earlier.
After Anna finished speaking, a handsome young man (Emmanuele Conte) with curly blond hair like the “Archangel Gabriel” (a joke of the organizer) came out on stage playing a guitar and singing a song in Italian about “paradise” in a strong, powerful voice. The Pope bent over and followed him intensely, as he did for all the interventions and performances.
The organizer of the event was then flanked by two young ladies as he spoke about the need for young people not to be thieves but to give back something of themselves in order to bring happiness to other people. Julia described her experience as a worker in a refugee camp near the Syrian border, about suffering and entering into the suffering of others, in order to give other people hope. She talked about sharing death, hatred, good food, a desire to live and build something new with those who suffer. Young people from Western countries are spoiled, she observed. Although it is very uncomfortable for her to live with refugees in Lebanon, she feels enriched from sharing their daily lives. Applause followed.
Julia was followed by Father Alexander of Ecuador, who suffered from bad health as a child. He loved folk music and folk customs but eventually moved to Pisa and learned the Italian language (which he found difficult). Father Alexander then danced on stage, after which he continued his autobiographical talk. After finishing his studies, he didn’t want to return to Ecuador and asked for a scholarship to remain in Pisa. He then found Christian people in Pisa who helped him approach God and was seduced by theology. He realized that the One he was looking for had a name: God. He then made a vocational discernment at a seminary in Arezzo where he still lives. He has made a long journey but asserts that God never takes away our dreams, or anything else for that matter.
Then a young woman, dressed in blue jeans and a grey sweater, came on stage to sing a song in Italian with a young man accompanying her on the piano. She sang in Italian and had a very pleasant voice.
The next speaker, a young woman, addressed the topic of ecology: How to help young people become agents of change in society; how to use natural resources like water more effectively to help others, especially families. She described a project called “Yo puedo” (“I can,” in Spanish), which started after the building of a dam, with a search for alternative, renewable, clean sources of energy. They designed their own solar panels from recycled aluminum cans to aid coffee growers in their area. The event’s organizer then spoke with two girls who, from a very young age, got involved in this project. Another girl spoke of the need for young people to share their ideas – an important role – for, if we can all work together, it would make for a better, more feasible project. Yet another girl highlighted the fact that we don’t know the true strength we hold in our hands. She made a trip to India where she was able to encounter people from different countries, feeling lucky to be a part of something bigger than herself.
Questions & Answers.
Next followed a Question-and-Answer period. A young girl asked Pope Francis: “How can young people find time and space to grow authentically?” Another young man asked how we can help those bullied rediscover their worth? A young man from the Czech Republic spoke about corruption: How can he live out his vocation in the midst of corruption? A young woman asked how people can work at certain jobs and not lose their integrity? Another girl: “How can we remain indifferent when faced with people’s problems?” A young man spoke about migrants, while a young woman talked about the challenges of social media: “What criteria should we use when on the Web?” Another girl from Pakistan wanted to know what the Church is doing to help people living in countries like hers where there is not a Christian majority. A young man spoke about living in a country in which many people are ignorant of the Church and also have a poor image of the Church.
The Pope said that the answers to the young people’s questions will be given not by him but by the Synod Fathers. Otherwise, what would be the point of the Synod? The Pontiff’s remarks drew sustained applause. Pope Francis then added that the answers the Synod Fathers will give should be given without fear, a theme dear to the Pope and an allusion to the Greek word “parrhesia,” meaning boldness or frankness. Francis then proceeded to offer what he termed not “answers,” to the young people’s questions but certain principles.
Pope Francis Lays Down Certain Principles.
The first principle is that young people are called to be on a journey looking at the goal that lies ahead and not in the mirror at themselves or waiting on the sidelines like couch potatoes ending up retired at 24.
The second principle is that young people need to find themselves not by gazing at themselves in a mirror but through self-actualization and self-realization in the activities of their daily lives. They are called to seek the true, the good and the beautiful and thus will they find themselves.
The third principle relates to living a coherent life in a coherent Church. The Church cannot preach the Beatitudes of Our Lord and then contradict those Christian values through scandalous clericalism. All laity, Religious, priests and young people are called to put the Beatitudes into practice; to follow the way of the Beatitudes and not the way of clericalism and worldly ways. Young people have to ask themselves: Am I living a life that is coherent?
The fourth principle has to do with discerning a young person’s relationship to the political sphere. The Pope warned against getting lost in power which at root means getting lost in egoism. He explained that true power is derived from serving others and not from dominating them to make them lower than ourselves or even our slaves. Furthermore, the Pontiff commented that young people have no price. He exhorted the young people present not to allow themselves to be bought and sold by colonizing ideologies, not to allow themselves to become slaves because young people are not up for auction and should find their freedom in Christ.
The fifth point made by Pope Francis focused on young people and the use of digital media. He spoke of “interconnectedness.” He said that the Internet and social media do serve that purpose, but he warned that they could also be a barrier to the formation of concrete relationships. He discouraged youth from being so attached to their cell phones as to be unable to interact around the family dining room table. Francis emphatically told the young people that if their cell phones, the Internet and social media should take away from the “concreteness” of their interpersonal relationships, they should do away with such things, put them down.
The sixth point of interest in Francis’ address to young people was on the theme of “welcoming other people.” He encouraged the youth not to consider migrants an enemy to be chased away. The Pope insisted that we cannot close the door to others, let alone our hearts. In this vein, Francis offered his own critique of populist government, perhaps an allusion here to Matteo Salvini’s “La Lega” or Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” which from the Pontiff’s perspective are not truly “popular,” because they do not have anything to do with the real culture of the people. True populism doesn’t close the door to others, to the migrant, the stranger and the poor. Rather, according to Pope Francis, true populism remains open to dialogue with the other and allows love to open all doors.
Pope Francis’ Concluding Remarks.
Francis concluded his remarks by lauding a photo of a young person’s grandparent that had appeared earlier on the big screen. He praised it as the most beautiful aspect of the entire event and encouraged young people to speak to their elders, mindful that their roots are with the elderly. The Pope then exhorted the young people to go out and bear fruit along a concrete path so that one day they themselves will become the roots of other trees that will bear fruit for the sake of others in the human family.
So, for an overall reaction: I would say that, like so many Vatican-sponsored “youth” events, this was a mixed bag. As I noted earlier, some of the young people’s testimonies were truly moving. The depth of their witness, however, was often undermined by the lack of a prayerful atmosphere and by musical renditions and a dancing priest (perhaps to convince all that priests are human and normal?), which had nothing to do with the thrust of their presentations and could only be classed as pandering to the young, presuming that they have to be entertained at all costs. Some of the topics clearly came out of the grab bag of elderly Curial officials. For example, I don’t know of any youth who gather to discuss ecology (unless they are working on a science project) or the production of weapons! Also, conspicuously absent were any references to Our Lady or other youthful saintly models. In fact, there was no prayer or blessing. Regrettable, too, was that the young women representing religious life wore secular garb – although all the data shows that the vast majority of young Sisters belong to communities that wear a distinctive habit.
Finally, I guess I would say that most of what the young people had to offer was quite good (as were the Pope’s reflections) – if only their elder organizers had stayed out of the way by imposing elements that they think or hope attract the youth.
Fr Nicholas Gregoris is a founding member of the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman and managing editor of “The Catholic Response.” He holds a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology from the Gregorian University and a licentiate and doctorate in Mariology from the Marianum, both in Rome. He is the author of four books.