Youth and New Evangelization. Tuscania, 9 August 2015

Most Rev. Giampaolo Crepaldi

Tuscania, 9 August 2015


I’m very pleased to have this opportunity to speak to you young people. You have to know that bishops love speaking to youth and spending time with them. I can bear witness to this fact on my own behalf and that of my diocese. During the year there are specific moments dedicated to them and in which I willingly take part. I am also always pleased to meet with groups of young people who belong to ecclesial associations or movements. I take great pleasure in participating in the torch-light procession organized by young people in Trieste on the Eve of Pentecost. In Trieste as well we are working on the restructuring of a small church in the middle of the city, a church to be destined in particular to young people, who will therefore have a place of spirituality and prayer at their disposal. Young people are truly close to the heart of a bishop, and in particular young seminarians and young priests, with whom I meet on a regular basis once a month.  

There is also another reason why I am pleased to speak to young people. In my life I was blessed with the opportunity to know Cardinal Van Thuân, with whom I worked for many years in the Holy See, and I would like you to become familiar with him as well. He was a Vietnamese cardinal who passed away in 2002, but is alive today in his writings and the memories of those who knew him.  His books abound with recollections of his imprisonment in the communist jails of Viet Nam, his prayers of hope, and also his many thoughts and reflections regarding youth. In depth did he live the Christian virtue of hope, which he also cultivated in the darkest of situations such as isolation in a prison cell during the communist regime in Viet Nam, and, in spiritual terms, this kept him ever young. Cardinal Van Thuân took an active interest in young people, met with them on all five continents, and strived to transmit this Gospel of hope to them. It is also for this reason that I’m pleased to speak to you in memory of this cardinal, who spoke about hope so well to young people.  

Moreover, hope often resurfaces when Pope Francis speaks to young people, and he repeatedly urges them “not to let themselves be robbed of hope”. Then there is the grand encyclical  – Spe Salvi – Pope Benedict XVI dedicated to this theological virtue. It just seems spontaneous to speak about hope when thinking about youth. People ordinarily say young people are the hope of humankind, and in religious language young people are considered the hope of the Church.  Precisely because it does have a very large population of young people, Africa is defined as the continent of hope, while Europe, with the striking demographic winter now underway, is considered the continent of hopelessness. The theoretical ‘man in the street’ says there is no future without young people, and he is so right. Therefore, when speaking to young people it is just natural to speak to them about hope. Young people represent the future, and hope has to do not with what already has been, but what will come to be, what will take place in the future.

Nonetheless, it is necessary to be careful about this linkage among youth, hope and future. In fact, some things have to be specified, and doing so will enable me to connect with today’s theme: young people and new evangelization.  

The society in which we live today has launched forms of aggression against youth. Just think, for example, about the monstrous drama of abortion. Nowadays people refer to it as a right, and readily available without a prescription are pills that cause abortion. Just think about the vulgar and immoral forms of amusement and entertainment society now proposes to young people or how love between a man and a women is being projected to them. I have no fear of seeming overly pessimistic if I say that society, in the myriad of its forms and expressions, is in the process of structuring and programming sin in what it proposes to youth.

The lever used to this end is the lever of the future, or, as someone has called it, chrono-idolatry, or adoration of the future: what’s best is what’s most recent, what’s newest. In many ways society today is against young people, and, paradoxically enough, is so in its efforts to appear young itself at all costs by celebrating as good and beautiful everything that is young, the latest discovery, the latest behavioral fad, the latest fashion. In this way there is an inversion of terms: instead of being nourished, hope is demeaned. Today’s society proposes and imposes one thing alone for young people: be up-to-date, keep abreast of times. You can well understand that I am referring not only to fashion, but to styles of life and values. Getting married, getting married in church in the presence of the Lord no longer seems to be up-to –date. Thinking about having children, remaining ever faithful and loving one another as persons in love just like Christ loves the Church no longer seems to be up-do-date. Cultivating a sentiment of modesty and fear of God in speech, attire, and relations between boys and girls no longer seems to be up-to-date. This form of concern about looking ahead to the future ends up by extinguishing the future in our young people. In fact, striving to appear young at all costs is a spiritual and moral illness suffered by the society in which we live, a society which imposes upon us the need to always be up-to-date, also in unseemly and even ignoble things.

We therefore have to be very careful about the linkage between young people and the future. It is true that they are oriented to the future, but not to the future as such and considered in chronological terms alone, but to a future of sense and meaning, to a future of beauty and truth. The future can be proposed in such a way as to slaughter hope. One of the ways to “steal” hope from young people – according to the words of Pope Francis – can be that of making sure they accept everything the ‘machine of the future’, the administrative or economical planning of the future, imposes upon them. At that point there will no longer be a true future and there will no longer be true hope.

Let us therefore take a look at what the expression “new evangelization” means. In what sense can evangelization be new? I realize I am bringing to your attention something strange for young people, but I do think we can look towards the future with hope only if we look at the past in the sense of what-we-have-inherited-and-what-constitutes-us. In the case of evangelization as well as we can succumb to the urge to appear young at all costs, invent up-to-date oddities, corroborate forms of behavior as Christian only because so many people act that way, blindly embrace what the world does and make it part of our communities’ pastoral programmes. This too would be a form of chrono-idolatry, a form of the adoration of the contingencies of time instead of Jesus Christ, who is always the same, yesterday, today and forever, and of whose word not a single iota will pass away. We would be under the illusion of opening the doors of the future, but we would actually be closing them in our own face. If this new evangelization were new in the sense of diverse in contents compared with the evangelization of all times it would be replacing Christ with the ‘god time’, would never arise above what happens as it happens, and would end up in the “nothingness” of hopelessness. The mere succession of facts is in itself bereft of sense: sense, in fact, is an event and cannot be a fact. If the future is no more than a fact, there is no future. If the future is an event, there is a future and there is hope.  Christians look on the future with hope because it is illuminated by an event that is to be: the return of the Lord and the salvific fulfillment of creation. This event, however, is linked to other events that constitute the contents of our faith: Creation, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the establishment of the Church. How could we harbor hope in a future if we do not look backwards to these events that constitute us as Christians?  This is why I said earlier that in order to look at things new it is necessary to look at things age-old.

Chrono-idolatry, however, also works in the opposite direction, and things age-old can be considered no longer existent,  surpassed. What would therefore be the sense of looking at them? It wouldn’t be possible to derive anything from them for our future. This is not the case at all, however, for the very real truths of the Catholic faith. The fact that our Lord Jesus Christ died, rose from the dead and left the sepulcher empty, celebrated the Last Supper as a Priest and died on the Cross as a victim, and animated the Church with His Spirit on Pentecost are not facts that happened once and belong to the past, to things dead; they are events that continue to take place. It is the past that does not die and can therefore nourish the future and hope. Christ stands before us as Savior and also stands behind us as Creator. He is the Alpha and the Omega.

I realize it is rather unusual to speak to young people about the past. Nonetheless, I think you have understood that the past to which I refer is not past and renders possibly the future, because it reassures us that He whom we await has already come, and our awaiting cannot end up “awaiting a Godot” who will never come. He who will be at the end was already at the beginning. God does not come into the picture at a certain point in our history; it is He who wanted that history at the very beginning. When we await and hope we can do so because somehow we already know the object of our awaiting and our hope. Or, in even better terms, as St. Augustine says, we already knew Him even if we didn’t comprehend Him.

This point is very well illustrated by the experience of converts to Christ. Let’s take the example of the great English author G.K. Chesterton, a resolute convert from lukewarm Anglicanism to fervent Catholicism. When a soul encounters Christ it feels immense astonishment, while at the same time feeling it has returned home. His Catholic faith, wrote Chesterton, satisfied a dual condition: as he wrote, “I am a man who with extreme audacity has discovered what had already been discovered”. He is much like that seafarer who comes ashore on the coasts of what he thought was an island in the southern seas and discovers it is England. He had imagined he was the first man to set foot in Brighton, only to discover he was the last. 

For a Christian, going is always a returning. He whom we seek has always been with us. When a convert encounters Christ he discovers he had always thought about Him and that Christ had always been close to him. But conversion my friends, is not just that of the great conversions, like that of Chesterton just mentioned or that of André Frossard. Each Christian must experience ongoing conversion. As Benedict XVI put it, you become a Christian, you’re not born one. And you become one at each moment. Hence, conversion is ongoing, continuous. It is the experience of Chesterton, the experience of having seen what was already in front of us, the experience of finding the new in the old, knowing what we had always thought, and  encountering He who has always been with us; it is a never-ending experience. We are very attached to our ideas. Young people especially are attached to their own ideas, mainly because they are their ideas, and then because they are new, and at times even forerunners of truth. Hence, they often raise their voices to express their truths. What joy, however, to abide by one’s own truths and discover not that they are not truths, but that they are not mine. What joy to discover that my truths were true also before me, and that they are truths precisely for this reason; not becomes they are mine, but because they were true before me. This is the sense of the experience of astonishment and feeling at home at one and the same time. Thus is it with the Catholic faith.

Pope Francis is now inviting the Church “to go out”. He is summoning the Church to evangelize. He is also calling on you young people to go out and evangelize. The Church, however, is able to go out towards the world only if it always and constantly returns within itself and is firmly rooted in its own depths. Doing is always being, as Christian philosophers were wont to say. The first thing is ‘being’, and this also applies for the Church and for evangelization. And ‘being’ means dwelling in one’s depths, living in contact with what has constituted us, belonging to our tradition. Consider the peace of mind we all feel when during the Mass we recite the ‘Creed’, knowing it is the same creed of the Apostles in which our faith and our blessed hope have been dwelling for hundreds upon hundreds of years. Faith is a “being with”, and only those who “are with” the faith can then evangelize. Evangelization is not activism; it issues forth from a “being with”. There are saints who did many things, but did them as a consequence of their “being” with Jesus in the Church. Moreover, there are saints who never left their convent cell, rectory or confessional. I am readily aware that young people feel driven by a great yearning to do things. Nonetheless, it is also typical of young people to want to know about the reasons for things, to go all the way in the search for the ‘whys’ in life. And the ‘why’ of action is always being, the ‘why’ of doing is always contemplation, and the ‘why’ behind what changes is always what remains the same.