Christus Vivit: The Good, the Banal, and the Exasperating

The recently released Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation contains many good things, but is also filled with passages that are overwrought, exaggerated, and lacking.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, holds Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation, "Christus Vivit" (Christ Lives), during a news conference for its presentation at the Vatican April 2, 2019. (CNS photo/CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The post-synodal apostolic exhortation on youth, Christus Vivit (hereafter, CV), has arrived. The first, and most important, point to make is that the worst predictions of some of the prophets of doom have not been realized: there is no heresy in the document; in fact, there is very little theology in the document (about which more momentarily). What is good is very good; the rest, for the most part, is banal.

Years ago, a very wise cardinal told me that if you wanted to get a quick overview of a work, check the footnotes. CV has 164 footnotes. According to my calculation, 56 of them are citations from the Final Document (FD) of the synod on youth; 61 of the footnotes are from Pope Francis himself. Now, all popes have been self-referential in their writing, but this is a bit much: over 40% of the material from the current author? The Fathers of the Church are cited five times, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church comes in for two. Pope Benedict makes it twice, just like his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Imagine: JP2 – the Pope of Youth – is quoted only twice!

In this overview, I would like to proceed by way of chiaroscuro – reflection on both lights and shadows.

The Lights

Let’s start our considerations with what is good. Unlike the FD, CV begins from a clearly sacral perspective, with the very first words: “Christ is alive!” Chapter One offers a very healthy menu of young holy men and women whom we encounter in the Sacred Scriptures: in the Old Testament – Joseph, Gideon, Samuel, David, Solomon, Jeremiah, Ruth; in the New Testament – the prodigal son (in his repentance), the rich young man (for having kept all the commandments, even if he couldn’t take the next step), the wise virgins of the parable. Chapter Two deals with “Jesus, ever young.” Jesus was “the beloved Son” of the Father and the “obedient” child of Mary and Joseph. That chapter likewise presents a moving image of Our Lady, “the young woman of Nazareth,” who refused to yield “to evasions or illusions” because she “was the woman of strength” (45). The Pope sings her praises and makes salient applications for young people:

We are always struck by the strength of the young Mary’s ‘yes’, the strength in those words, ‘be it done’, that she spoke to the angel. This was no merely passive or resigned acceptance, or a faint ‘yes’, as if to say, ‘Well, let’s give it a try and see what happens’. Mary did not know the words, ‘Let’s see what happens’. She was determined; she knew what was at stake and she said ‘yes’ without thinking twice. Hers was the ‘yes’ of someone prepared to be committed, someone willing to take a risk, ready to stake everything she had, with no more security than the certainty of knowing that she was the bearer of a promise. So I ask each one of you: do you see yourselves as the bearers of a promise? What promise is present in my heart that I can take up? Mary’s mission would undoubtedly be difficult, but the challenges that lay ahead were no reason to say ‘no’. Things would get complicated, of course, but not in the same way as happens when cowardice paralyzes us because things are not clear or sure in advance. Mary did not take out an insurance policy! She took the risk, and for this reason she is strong, she is an ‘influencer’, the ‘influencer’ of God. Her ‘yes and her desire to serve were stronger than any doubts or difficulties.’ (44)

A dozen young saints are highlighted, from various times and places. That section concludes with a great aspiration: “May these and so many other young people who perhaps in silence and hiddenness lived the Gospel to the full, intercede for the Church, so that she may be full of joyous, courageous and committed young people who can offer the world new testimonies of holiness” (63).

Chapter Three opens with the helpful reminder that “young people are no longer children” (64). Of course, a major problem is that all too many young people act like children and want to be treated like children – at least when it suits them. A very realistic portrait is painted of “a world in crisis”:

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. This violence destroys many young lives. Abuse and addiction, together with violence and wrongdoing, are some of the reasons that send young people to prison, with a higher incidence in certain ethnic and social groups. (72)

While it is certainly true that “many young people, whether by force or lack of alternatives” do evil things, it is equally true that not a few consciously choose to act in such ways.

More of the sad contemporary reality is noted:

Even more numerous in the world are young people who suffer forms of marginalization and social exclusion for religious, ethnic or economic reasons. Let us not forget the difficult situation of adolescents and young people who become pregnant, the scourge of abortion, the spread of HIV, various forms of addiction (drugs, gambling, pornography and so forth), and the plight of street children without homes, families or economic resources. In the case of women, these situations are doubly painful and difficult. (74)

One of the best sections is on “the digital environment.” Prudently, the good of the digital phenomenon is duly noted, but a warning is also issued:

Yet to understand this phenomenon as a whole, we need to realize that, like every human reality, it has its share of limitations and deficiencies. It is not healthy to confuse communication with mere virtual contact. 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. (88)

The presentation on migrants (91-94) is rather straightforward and, frankly, a rather pleasant surprise. An honest discussion of the sexual abuse crisis is given. A most welcome reminder is tendered:

Thank God, those who committed these horrible crimes are not the majority of priests, who carry out their ministry with fidelity and generosity. I ask young people to let themselves be inspired by this vast majority. And 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. This dark cloud also challenges all young people who love Jesus Christ and his Church: they can be a source of great healing if they employ their great capacity to bring about renewal, to urge and demand consistent witness, to keep dreaming and coming up with new ideas. (100)

Going on, young people can read very salutary advice:

Keep your eyes fixed on the outstretched arms of Christ crucified, let yourself be saved over and over again. And when you go to confess your sins, believe firmly in his mercy which frees you of your guilt. Contemplate his blood poured out with such great love, and let yourself be cleansed by it. In this way, you can be reborn ever anew. (123)


Every other solution will prove inadequate and temporary. It may be helpful for a time, but once again we will find ourselves exposed and abandoned before the storms of life. With Jesus, on the other hand, our hearts experience a security that is firmly rooted and enduring. Saint Paul says that he wishes to be one with Christ in order “to know him and the power of his resurrection” (Phil 3:10). That power will constantly be revealed in your lives too, for he came to give you life, “and life in abundance” (Jn 10:10). (128)

And then, in a 21st century version of Pascal’s Wager is this:

Ask the Holy Spirit each day to help you experience anew the great message. Why not? You have nothing to lose, and he can change your life, fill it with light and lead it along a better path. He takes nothing away from you, but instead helps you to find all that you need, and in the best possible way. Do you need love? You will not find it in dissipation, using other people, or trying to be possessive or domineering. You will find it in a way that will make you genuinely happy. Are you seeking powerful emotions? You will not experience them by accumulating material objects, spending money, chasing desperately after the things of this world. They will come, and in a much more beautiful and meaningful way, if you let yourself be prompted by the Holy Spirit. (131)

“Friendship with Christ” (150-162) is an important conversation, especially for a generation that has been led to believe that one can have 10,000 “friends.” In treating youthful commitment, the Pope levels an important caution:

At times, seeing a world so full of violence and selfishness, young people can be tempted to withdraw into small groups, shunning the challenges and issues posed by life in society and in the larger world. They may feel that they are experiencing fraternity and love, but their small group may in fact become nothing other than an extension of their own ego. This is even more serious if they think of the lay vocation simply as a form of service inside the Church: serving as lectors, acolytes, catechists, and so forth. They forget that the lay vocation is directed above all to charity within the family and to social and political charity. It is a concrete and faith-based commitment to the building of a new society. It involves living in the midst of society and the world in order to bring the Gospel everywhere, to work for the growth of peace, harmony, justice, human rights and mercy, and thus for the extension of God’s kingdom in this world. (168)

This is a clarion call to take seriously the challenge of Vatican II and John Paul II (particularly in Christifideles Laici) for the lay faithful to move out of the safe environs of the sanctuary (which is the workplace of the priest) into the world. It is also a challenge to engage in the critical work of evangelization – which quite often Francis has confused with “proselytism” (which has recourse to improper means to spread the faith). However, in CV, he actually quotes St. Paul’s self-admonition: “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16). (176) In the following paragraph, Francis says that God “wants everyone to feel the warmth of his mercy and love” (emphasis added); he goes on to speak of the Lord’s invitation for all “to be fearless missionaries wherever we are and in whatever company we find ourselves.”

Chapter Six is devoted to the need for young people to have “roots.” And here is one of this Pope’s strongest comments on the importance of rootedness:

Think about it: if someone tells young people to ignore their history, to reject the experiences of their elders, to look down on the past and to look forward to a future that he holds out, doesn’t it then become easy to draw them along so that they only do what he tells them? He needs the young to be shallow, uprooted and distrustful, so that they can trust only in his promises and act according to his plans. That is how various ideologies operate: they destroy (or deconstruct) all differences so that they can reign unopposed. To do so, however, they need young people who have no use for history, who spurn the spiritual and human riches inherited from past generations, and are ignorant of everything that came before them. (181)

That paragraph could have come from the pen of John Paul or Benedict! And then, two paragraphs later, is this very moving reflection:

Dear young friends, do not let them exploit your youth to promote a shallow life that confuses beauty with appearances. Realize that there is beauty in the labourer who returns home grimy and unkempt, but with the joy of having earned food for his family. There is extraordinary beauty in the fellowship of a family at table, generously sharing what food it has. There is beauty in the wife, slightly dishevelled and no longer young, who continues to care for her sick husband despite her own failing health. Long after the springtime of their courtship has passed, there is beauty in the fidelity of those couples who still love one another in the autumn of life, those elderly people who still hold hands as they walk. There is also a beauty, unrelated to appearances or fashionable dress, in all those men and women who pursue their personal vocation with love, in selfless service of community or nation, in the hard work of building a happy family, in the selfless and demanding effort to advance social harmony. To find, to disclose and to highlight this beauty, which is like that of Christ on the cross, is to lay the foundations of genuine social solidarity and the culture of encounter.

Francis also urges youth to beware of “attempts to promote a spirituality without God” (184) and of those who seek to create “a rupture between generations” (191).

My professional educator’s heart was gladdened that the paltry reference to Catholic schools in the FD has been expanded to three paragraphs in CV. And so, we are reminded that “schools are unquestionably a platform for drawing close to children and young people” (221) and that “Catholic schools remain essential places for the evangelization of the young” (222).

In “areas needing to be developed,” one might be led to believe that Francis has been reading Cardinal Sarah: “Many young people have come to appreciate silence and closeness to God.” He praises the increase in youth “groups that gather to adore the Blessed Sacrament and to pray with the word of God” (224). He also sees the arts, and particularly music, as “pastoral resources” for reaching the young, as well as “various manifestations of popular piety, especially pilgrimages” (238).

In identifying ways that young people can “always [be] missionaries,” Francis offers a very practical and charming example:

Here I would point out that it doesn’t take much to make young people missionaries. Even those who are most frail, limited and troubled can be missionaries in their own way, for goodness can always be shared, even if it exists alongside many limitations. A young person who makes a pilgrimage to ask Our Lady for help, and invites a friend or companion along, by that single gesture is being a good missionary. (239)

He also wisely highlights “a special need to accompany young men and women showing leadership potential, so that they can receive training and the necessary qualifications” (245). Here we Americans can showcase the wonderful work done by FOCUS missionaries (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) on our college campuses.

In “being there for others,” a beautiful line pops off the page: “True love is passionate. Love between a man and a woman, when it is passionate, always leads to giving life. Always. To give life with body and soul” (261). Sts. Paul VI and John Paul II must be smiling from Heaven at that affirmation of Humanae Vitae. Another sad but realistic assessment surfaces:

the family continues to be the principal point of reference for young people. Children appreciate the love and care of their parents, they give importance to family bonds, and they hope to succeed in forming a family when it is their time. Without doubt, the increase of separation, divorce, second unions and single-parent families can cause great suffering and a crisis of identity in young people. Sometimes they must take on responsibilities that are not proportioned to their age and that force them to become adults before their time. (262)

“A culture of relativism and the ephemeral” is responsible for so many family-related problems. (265) In any culture, but uniquely so in the modern West:

Marriage requires preparation, and this calls for growing in self-knowledge, developing the greater virtues, particularly love, patience, openness to dialogue and helping others. It also involves maturing in your own sexuality, so that it can become less and less a means of using others, and increasingly a capacity to entrust yourself fully to another person in an exclusive and generous way. (265)

Other practical elements: “I ask young people not to expect to live without working” (269); the fear of “the replacement of many jobs by machines” (271); the importance of young people having “the chance to decide what kind of work they will do” (272); discovering one’s true vocation enables one “to summon up our best capacities for sacrifice, generosity and dedication” (273); “the importance of the formation of conscience, which allows discernment to grow in depth and in fidelity to God” (281).

“Discernment” has become a mantra for many to justify remaining in neutral. What can be done to eliminate that difficulty?

When seeking to discern our own vocation, there are certain questions we ought to ask. We should not start with wondering where we could make more money, or achieve greater recognition and social status. Nor even by asking what kind of work would be most pleasing to us. If we are not to go astray, we need a different starting point. We need to ask: Do I know myself, quite apart from my illusions and emotions? Do I know what brings joy or sorrow to my heart? What are my strengths and weaknesses? These questions immediately give rise to others: How can I serve people better and prove most helpful to our world and to the Church? What is my real place in this world? What can I offer to society? Even more realistic questions then follow: Do I have the abilities needed to offer this kind of service? Could I develop those abilities?

These questions should be centred less on ourselves and our own inclinations, but on others, so that our discernment leads us to see our life in relation to their lives. That is why I would remind you of the most important question of all. “So often in life, we waste time asking ourselves: ‘Who am I?’ You can keep asking, ‘Who am I?’ for the rest of your lives. But the real question is: ‘For whom am I?’”. Of course, you are for God. But he has decided that you should also be for others, and he has given you many qualities, inclinations, gifts and charisms that are not for you, but to share with those around you. (285-286)

Asking such questions forms part of “spiritual combat” (295).

The Shadows

Now, for the less palatable items.

First of all, the document is way too long for anyone to go through — it is nearly 33,000 words in length, not counting footnotes — let alone young people who think that being assigned a two-page article is an impossible demand!

The use of the word “dream” is overwrought – 56 times, by my count. All I could think of was the Everly Brothers hit from 1984: “Dream, dream, dream, dream.” And then comes the punch-line: “I’m dreamin’ my life away.” Unfortunately, that is what all too many young folks are doing. Dreaming is good, but it must be connected to reality. A kid who is 5’6″ and 115 pounds can dream all he wants about becoming the star quarterback for Notre Dame, but it ain’t gonna happen! Having unrealistic dreams only leads to frustration and eventual inaction.

The constant encouragement to listen to the elderly may have been good counsel fifty years ago, however, in my pastoral experience much of the socio-cultural meltdown has been forged by the over-65 crowd. Imagine an 82-year-old woman confessing adultery because she envied her grand-daughter’s sexploits! If anything, the younger generation is often more open to the truth than their seniors, who not infrequently are still rebelling against the supposed rigidity of their upbringing.

Several specifics:

• The word “cross” can be found fourteen times. In paragraph 83, youth are encouraged to go to Jesus to be relieved of their crosses, and paragraph 119 has a powerful reflection on what Christ has wrought by His Cross. However, nowhere do we hear about the necessity of every disciple’s carrying of his or her own personal cross. After all, our blessed Lord was very clear on this: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:27). Pain and suffering are a part of every life; not to give young people the Christian prescription for dealing with these is neglectful, pastorally speaking.

• The Pope expresses concern about young people being “protected from all contamination” (30). While we ought not raise them in a bubble, preservation from near occasions of sin would seem to be a good thing.

• We are told that “as members of the Church, we should not stand apart from others” (36). Really? Throughout Christ’s High Priestly Prayer at the Last Supper, Our Lord repeatedly warns His disciples that if they follow Him, they can expect only the hatred of the world – precisely because our standing with Him makes us “stand apart from others.”

• What are we to make of this paragraph?

Young people can help keep her [the Church] young. They can stop her from becoming corrupt; they can keep her moving forward, prevent her from being proud and sectarian, help her to be poorer and to bear better witness, to take the side of the poor and the outcast, to fight for justice and humbly to let herself be challenged. Young people can offer the Church the beauty of youth by renewing her ability to “rejoice with new beginnings, to give unreservedly of herself, to be renewed and to set out for ever greater accomplishments.”

This is rather bizarre. Just how are youth to accomplish this?

• Clearly, the Pope has never absorbed the message of the Hartford Declaration, namely, that the Church needs to stand against the world, precisely for the world:

. . . others want a Church that listens more, that does more than simply condemn the world. They 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. (41) (italics added)

The Church has been “listening” all too long and has been rather short on speaking, with the result that the ship of the Church has been taking on a lot of water. Having listened (and, yes, that is important), she then has an obligation to speak – indeed, that is her primary responsibility given her by her divine Master’s “Great Commission”: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:19-20) .

And where does the Church “battle obsessively over two or three issues”? Of course, that line is ironic coming from a man who truly does “obsess over two or three issues” – immigration, clericalism, legalism, for example. The Church is – and will be more and more – “on the defensive.” Does a day go by when some militant secularist does not attack the Church? And does not 1 Peter 3:15 command us to be ready to give an answer? Would we not defend our mother from unjust assaults? Can we do any less for the Church, our Mother?

• Paragraph 42 gives the impression that the Church has been – and largely still is – an oppressor of women. History, however, tells a different story. It was the Church that raised the status of women, giving them roles and responsibilities unthinkable in most religions and cultures before, as teachers, theologians, philosophers, abbesses, reformers. We get more of the same later on: “Some young women feel that there is a lack of leading female role models within the Church and they too wish to give their intellectual and professional gifts to the Church” (245). At least in the United States, the women religious of yesteryear surely provided “female role models,” until the vast majority of them went over the cliff. Thankfully, others did not and they do, in fact, give powerful witness to the genius and contributions of women in the Church.

• Exaggerated language abounds. This one passage is a good example:

Anyone called to be a parent, pastor or guide to young people must have the farsightedness to appreciate the little flame that continues to burn, the fragile reed that is shaken but not broken (cf. Is 42:3). The ability to discern pathways where others only see walls, to recognize potential where others see only peril. That is how God the Father see things; he knows how to cherish and nurture the seeds of goodness sown in the hearts of the young. Each young person’s heart should thus be considered “holy ground”, a bearer of seeds of divine life, before which we must “take off our shoes” in order to draw near and enter more deeply into the Mystery. (67) (italics added)

A diabetic would be in a coma after all that sugar and honey.

• “Young people are aware that the body and sexuality have an essential importance for their lives and for their process of growth in identity” (81). Are young people really “aware” of this in a profound way? Sadly, this document offers no guidance on how they could or should integrate such awareness into their daily living and experience. Amazingly, the Ten Commandments are never mentioned.

• Out of the blue, paragraph 104 introduces us to Carlo Acutis. I never heard of him, and after three paragraphs, I still don’t know who he was. Similarly, paragraph 108 quotes “a great poet,” again another great unknown. I cite these because they demonstrate a recurring papal failing: coming at situations from a very limited horizon and supposing that everyone else shares that vision.

• Paragraph 113 notes that “perhaps your experience of fatherhood has not been the best.” It goes on to link that experience with how it affects one’s relationship with God the Father. Fair enough. However, I must say that I grow weary of hearing exclusively of bad fathers. Are there no bad mothers? Even-handed critiques actually accomplish far more than one-sided ones. This Pope has a propensity for canonizing mothers and grandmothers, while barely acknowledging fathers – and when he does, it is often a broadside like this.

• In paragraph 115, young people are assured that God “does not keep track of your failings.” Huh? If not, what is Judgment Day all about? To be sure, when one’s sins are repented of, confessed and absolved, they are cast into the abyss because when God forgives, He does forget. This line, however, is grossly misleading and apt fodder for a generation that already hates to be “judged.”

• Jesus “forgives us and sets us free without cost” (121). Dietrich Bonhoefer, call your office. Take that book of yours, The Cost of Discipleship, out of circulation. We Catholics believe in divine-human cooperation. To be sure, God takes the initiative, but we must give the response – of metanoia, the change of mind, heart and behavior. There is no such thing as “cheap grace.”

• Asked once what he sees in a young person, Papa Bergoglio gave this response:

I see someone who is searching for his or her own path, who wants to fly on their two feet, who faces the world and looks at the horizon with eyes full of the future, full of hope as well as illusions. A young person stands on two feet as adults do, but unlike adults, whose feet are parallel, he always has one foot forward, ready to set out, to spring ahead. Always racing onward. To talk about young people is to talk about promise and to talk about joy. 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. He is foolish enough to delude himself, and resilient enough to recover from that delusion. (139)

Now, I have been involved in education for decades, and I have met precious few young persons who fit this profile. Perhaps the Pope was describing kids during the Depression. Truth be told, the average young person today is immobilized into indecision and lives in fear – joyless and hopeless, hence, the high suicide rate for the young.

• And, now, for a full menu of quaint, corny “Bergoglioisms,” all in one paragraph:

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! Cast out the fears that paralyze you, so that you don’t become young mummies. Live! Give yourselves over to the best of life! Open the door of the cage, go out and fly! Please, don’t take early retirement. (143)

Who talks like that? Who could imagine that such silly expressions would resonate with youth? Can any papal collaborator convince him that language like this just causes raucous laughter?

• “Friendship with Jesus cannot be broken” (154). Of course, it can; that is precisely what mortal sin does. I suppose the Pope means that Jesus is always waiting for us to return to Him and, in that sense, He remains faithful, even when we are not (cf. 2 Tim 2:13). However, it is just such lack of theological precision that gets this Pope into so much trouble so often.

• In paragraph 158, youth are encouraged to “stay connected to the Lord,” but they are not told how to do that.

• An entire section is devoted to “paths of fraternity,” actually very good, but I would have preferred to use the word “communion” (a truly theological word), rather than “fraternity.” “Communion” exists among the Persons of the Blessed Trinity; we have “communion” with the Triune God through the life of grace which comes to us in the sacraments; due to the vertical communion we have, we then share in a horizontal communion.

• Chapter Seven deals with youth ministry, proper, which is to be “synodal.” What in God’s name is “synodal youth ministry”? More meaningless jargon. Those working with the young are then given a papal prescription:

The young make us see the need for new styles and new strategies. For example, while adults often worry about having everything properly planned, with regular meetings and fixed times, most young people today have little interest in this kind of pastoral approach. Youth ministry needs to become more flexible. (204)

Part of the problem of this generation is exactly their inability to have and to maintain order in their lives, to work according to a schedule and calendar; ask any employer of young people. In paragraph 210, however, we are told the exact opposite of what has been affirmed in 204:

As for outreach, I trust that young people themselves know how best to find appealing ways to come together. They know how to organize events, sports competitions and ways to evangelize using social media, through text messages, songs, videos and other ways. They only have to be encouraged and given the freedom to be enthused about evangelizing other young people wherever they are to be found.

Once again, the Pope must know kids from an entirely planet from those I have worked with over the years. “They know how to organize events”? You have got to be kidding!

• Then another papal bugaboo surfaces in paragraph 212:

As for growth, I would make one important point. 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.

In the following paragraph, the Pope says that the “path of growth” “must certainly include formation in Christian doctrine and morality,” but he denigrates such efforts in the previous paragraph and never suggests when such formation should occur. From years of teaching high school, I can assert unequivocally that a failure to give serious education in chastity and sexuality opens the way for young people to walk out the front door of the Church. In these more than sixty pages, never once are we told when or how catechesis (and evangelization) of the young should take place. Most distressingly, we read that “many young people grow weary of our programmes of doctrinal and spiritual formation, and at times demand a chance to be active participants in activities that benefit others” (225). Even more:

Instead of “overwhelming young people with a body of rules that make Christianity seem reductive and moralistic, we are called to invest in their fearlessness and to train them to take up their responsibilities, in the sure knowledge that error, failure and crisis are experiences that can strengthen their humanity.” (233)

What “fearlessness” are we talking about, inasmuch as they have never been presented with a challenge? Further: Should not good mentors alert their charges to the pitfalls and sand traps that lie before them, so as to minimize “error, failure and crisis”?

• Short shrift is given to the liturgical/sacramental life of the Church (cf. n. 229 and a few other places). In this, I suppose, the Pope is a loyal son of Ignatius Loyola, who does not discuss such matters in his Spiritual Exercises. As a result, youth ministry is reduced to social activism and a “feel-good” making of “fraternity” – a scout meeting that begins with a prayer (maybe).

• For me, Chapter Eight, devoted to vocation, is, the most disappointing of all. First off, the Pope gets the passage in John 21 all wrong in declaring that Jesus asks Peter, “do you love me as a friend?” (250). On the contrary, the Risen Lord asks Peter if he loves Him sacrificially (agape), to which Peter responds with the love of a friend (philia). The pattern is repeated a second time. A third time, Our Lord “settles” for Peter’s lesser love – that of a friend. No, Jesus extends sacrificial love to us and expects the same in return; He will, however, take whatever we can give. Unfortunately, the Pope lowers the bar at the starting gate.

• Instead of quoting himself in paragraph 254 (“I am a mission on this earth”), he would have done far better in quoting the stirring words of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman:

God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.

And what better encouragement to youthful decision and commitment than yet another of Newman’s insights: “Blessed are they who give the flower of their days and their strength of soul and body to Thee. Blessed are they who in their youth turn to Thee Who didst give thy life for them, and wouldst fain give it to them and implant it in them, that they may live forever.”

Another helpful addition would have been Pope John Paul’s frequent reminder that “being” always takes precedence over “doing.”

• “The vocation to special consecration” is treated in four brief paragraphs (274-277). This is embarrassingly weak. And even in what purports to be a pitch for priestly vocations, he feels compelled to talk about “priests who do not give good witness.” And we wonder why the numbers of seminarians and ordinations have been on a steep decline for the past five years?

A Concluding Thought

Well, we have come to the end of our review of a painfully long document (of course, John Paul wasn’t given to terseness of expression, either). As in many pontifical documents, we encounter inconsistent styles, approaches and vocabulary – the work of many hands, undoubtedly – but certainly not well edited. Some enterprising youth minister might cull all the good material, reduce it to a readable pamphlet, leaving out the trite and/or problematic passages. Maybe I have given such a person just the right start.

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 260 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.


  1. (Sigh.)

    Thank you, Fr. Peter, for wading through the nearly impenetrable thicket of Pope Bergoglio’s thinking and bringing back some worthwhile souvenirs.

    Myself, I would never risk such a journey. I’m pretty sure my logical machete not be incisive enough to penetrate such an overgrown and inscrutable jungle.

    • Let me ask you this:

      During the Papacy of Benedict XVI, did you refer to him as “Pope Ratzinger”?
      During the Papacy of John Paul II, did you refer to him as “Pope Wojtyla”?
      During the Papacy of John Paul I, did you refer to him as “Pope Luciani”?
      During the Papacy of Paul VI, did you refer to him as “Pope Montini”?
      Would you dare refer to Pope St. John XVIII as “Pope Roncalli”? Or to Pope Pius XII as “Pope Pacelli”? Or to Pope Pius XI as “Pope Ratti”? Or to Pope Benedict XV as “Pope della Chiesa”?

      You know full well that you did not and would not. Well, apply the same to the current Pope, regardless of whether or not you like what he says and does (and I certainly do NOT like what he says or does, but I still refer to him properly as “Pope Francis,” and only that).

      • I beg to differ. It is extremely common to refer to popes by their family name — and yes, if you check my writing during the two previous pontificates, you will see that not infrequently I did that. Furthermore, several times in my article, I did refer to the current pope as “Francis.” So, let’s stop trying to parse something that doesn’t admit of the process.

        • p.s.: When Pius XII answered his phone, he said: “Pacelli qui” (Pacelli here). Perhaps he didn’t think he was a pope?

  2. “While we ought not raise them in a bubble, preservation from near occasions of sin would seem to be a good thing.”

    Agreed. Minus any resolution to not hang out, to not be friends with young people who do bad things…it’s just a bunch of nonsense. Such a resolution to avoid bad companionship was Step 1 for St. John Bosco, I believe. For sure we cannot “raise them in a bubble,” fleeing every interaction…but as Catholics, we need to reclaim the Aristotlean/Thomistic value of friendship which involves “virtue.” And this notion that the role of young person is to “save the Church” and also to save their classmates? beyond first and foremost their own good example…is nonsense. And save what really if “What does it profit a man…” is nowhere around.

    How many times does the word “virtue” appear in this document?

    What frequents gets supplied in reply…”Well Jesus ate with sinners…” Yes, God Incarnate…who came to save sinners.

    Related to this documents are various depictions…that all the kids ever get in Church are “rules,” guilt trips and talking about sin…really? That would be someone joking. Not in most parishes for a long long time.

    It is good to begin with “Christ lives!” but what about what follows? What gets devalued, discarded and sometimes put to death is much of St. Paul and the Epistles…and yes, the hard sayings in the Gospels.

  3. Are we at all surprised at this?
    Is this not simply more jesuit-speak ambiguity masquerading as deep thought from a man unqualified for the position he holds? From a man who despises clarity?
    Yes, indeed, it is.

  4. April 8th: Not a bad review – but too long by far and rather nitpicking! As far as this passage: “As for growth, I would make one important point. 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.” I recall Pope Benedict saying something similar about not starting people off with teaching them rules and regulations; rather to lead them to Christ and His Church though showing them the beauty and goodness she offers which will lead them to the source of all beauty and goodness.

    • Christ has rules and regulations.
      You cannot divorce Christ from His rules and regulations. To do so would be to give them a Christ made in your own image.

  5. What comes across as the Pontiff’s message is suggested, perhaps inferred by textual comparison. For example in your highlight quotes, “In 83, youth are encouraged to go to Jesus to be relieved of their crosses. 119 Nowhere do we hear about the necessity of every disciple’s carrying of his or her own personal cross. We are told that ‘as members of the Church, we should not stand apart from others’ (36). The Church needs to stand against the world, precisely for the world”-the message apparently more inferred than suggested, which you seize upon in your summary of that section is accommodation rather than exclusivity of life in Christ. And only, as implied in your preliminary summary by an exclusive adaption to Christ can Youth be Light leading others out of the Darkness.

  6. Save a tree!

    Why so much cellulose devoted to 33,000 words, if not cobbled together from a collage of unnamed, surrogate popes–so much of it obscuring or muddling or even omitting salvageable references to the Word?

    In a CWR author interview for my recent book (gasp, a more guilty 100,000 words!) I was finally asked what I might recommend to the then upcoming synod on youth. The interview concludes with these 136 words:

    “In a pocket-size 1985 Letter to Youth the late St. Pope John Paul II wrote of hope, maturity, and responsible freedom toward the truth: “Be not afraid!” His witness is both doctrinal and pastoral, neither without the other. We see where the new Synod engagement with youth today works partly from a questionnaire. Yes, but in the pope’s letter and the Gospel it was the young man who did the deepest questioning: “what more must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). The Synod on Youth might assist our younger generation (and all generations)—-and confront our “throwaway culture”—-by recycling this Letter from a young quarry and factory laborer turned priest and then pope, and then modern-day saint. A simple link on diocesan and parish web sites would be an easy win for all.”

    • The Wikipedia entry and many cited literary uses of the original Judy cartoon witticism seem to miss entirely the intended irony. A spoiled egg will make one quite ill, and can hardly be unnoticed by anyone with a nose (such as the bishop): therefore the tainted egg refers to a suspect bit of theology that would be closer to poison than viaticum. In its day, liberation theology mightn’t be quite obvious on the horizon (though it was there), but it would be a perfect smelly example from 1960 onwards. And yes, it would seem that in the guise of youthful activism without a care for the pitfall of the pride of youth (ne’re a caveat against pride in the whole thing), CV is a devilled egg.

  7. So, the question: to drink or not to drink a glass of orange juice laced with half a cup of arsenic.

    Takers anyone?

    • Perhaps a fe…….no, not even that many.
      It’s ridiculous. The young have better things to with their time than translate insufferable jesuit-speak.

  8. You know as a father of 3 teenage sons I don’t go out of my way to be their friends. Instead if they make bad decisons I tell them to shape up and discuss in length the consequences of poor decisions. And I tell them I don’t care what they think if they live ‘Under my roof’ they have to live by our rules as their parents. Recently, one of their Scout Masters told me how much they respect me as their father. I got teary eyed and thanked God for his guidance and pray every day dot continued wisdom in my vocation as a Chritian parent.

  9. I have been teaching teenagers at a Mexican conservative Catholic High School for the past 13 years, and I can say that “Christus vivit” is an extraordinary and very well written document. It touches the heart of many problems that worry our youth. It has many powerful insights based on the Bible and the wisdom of the Saints. When teenagers are appropriately motivated, they can read complete books, and most of my students can (and will) read this papal exhortation (74 pages isnt’s really that much).
    I do not concur with the mainly negative interpretation that Fr. Straviskas has given to this document, even though he highlights some positive aspects of CV. I think all of CV is exceptional!! Perhaps the author of this article belongs to another generation of teachers or maybe, because of the generational gap, he can´t “connect” that well anymore with 16-year olds that belong to generation “Z”. That is why I think he doesn´t really know modern day teenagers, even though he has taught them for “decades”, and perhaps his rather pessimistic view of teenagers does’nt describe them with complete justice.
    When Fr. Straviskas writes:
    “Who talks like that? Who could imagine that such silly expressions would resonate with youth? Can any papal collaborator convince him that language like this just causes raucous laughter?”, referring to paragraph 143 of CV, perhaps he should ask himself if he has not lost a healthy sense of humor (and also respect for the successor of Saint Peter).
    I encourage everybody to read “Christus vivit” directly. You will enjoy it, learn a great deal from it, and take many of it’s wise insights to prayer and to life. At least, I have. Thanks and God bless you!!

  10. It’s easy to see that you don’t like Pope Francis. From this point of view, you criticize the text, for reasons are quite debatable. For me, it’s a joy to read every text of Pope Francis. It is easy to understand, not only for the priests. You criticize his style, for not being theological precise. Nevertheless, you forget that the aim of this document is precisely the youngest, and it’s easy to understand Francis try to adapt the style. I found that the reason of your critics is the hostility. The same hostility shared for many priest and bishops. You can’t forgive him for being who he is and act as he acts. I’m a priest, too, and I’m involved in young people education. And I share the way Francis is guiding the church and the way he tries reforming her. Greetings from Spain.

    • So…the young don’t care about theological precision? Or shouldn’t? Huh.

      “You can’t forgive him for being who he is and act as he acts.” A nonsensical statement. Good grief.

  11. Dear Fr. Peter,

    I started reading Christus VIVIT. As one who spends most of her time with young people in their early twenties, I find this exhortation enlightening. Many sentences which you call exaggerated ring so true.”The glory of youth is in the heart” [9]. It is unfair that so much criticism is showered on Pope Francis. One thing my students have not yet lost, possibly because they see our commitment and love for them, is respect for authority. It would quickly be eroded if they read exaggerated criticism as in this article.


    I. Sciriha

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