29 Sep Letter for the Feast of St. Francis 2018: Walking the Road with Young People
Walking the Road with Young People
Dear brothers, may the Lord give you peace!
The Solemnity of our Seraphic Father, Saint Francis of Assisi, happily coincides with the beginning of the Synod of Bishops, convened by Pope Francis, whose theme is: Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment. It is a time when young people are at the center of the Pope’s heart, as well as of the whole Church.
If we look at the ways in which our Seraphic Father experienced his youth — his restlessness and his searching — we can see a profound connection between that young man of 800 years ago and the youth of today, since the sacred soil of the human heart is no different now than then. The way in which St. Francis was able to respond to the challenges of his time can bring light to the search in which young people are today engaged, as well as being “an invitation to seek new paths and to journey along them boldly and trustfully, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus and opening up to the Holy Spirit, to rejuvenate the very countenance of the Church” at this time of epochal change (Instrumentum Laboris, Synod on Youth, 1).
The experience of the disciples as they walked to Emmaus can help us and can help young people to be more aware of the presence of Christ who walks beside us. For us too, walking with Christ will mean that our discouragement will be overcome, it will help us to re-interpret our story, make our hearts burn within us, and transform us into proclaimers of his Good News.
I. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them. (Lk 24:15)
After the Passion and death of Jesus, the Emmaus disciples, with downcast faces and with wounded souls, made their way back to their homes and their concerns. During this journey, without their realizing it, Jesus himself stands in their midst and accompanies them, listening attentively and silently to them.
Just as for the disciples of Emmaus, it is during their existential journey that our young people engage in discussing, maturing, reflecting, and sharing their key life experiences. This is “a time of experimentation, of ups and downs, of hope alternated with fear, and unavoidable tension between positive and negative aspects, through which we learn to express and integrate our affective, sexual, intellectual, spiritual, bodily, relational and social dimensions.”(IL18). This is a dynamic typical of the lives of the young, during which many realities are experienced — often without many opportunities for reflection and deeper understanding.
The Plenary Council of the Order (PCO 2018), recently held in Nairobi, Kenya, concluded that “listening to young people and walking with them involves personal, fraternal, and structural efforts to journey with them on their paths, to understand what is going on in their lives, to know their circumstances, share their achievements, and to be a friendly and sincere presence in their daily lives.” Therefore, it is necessary to adapt our steps to theirs and keep the same rhythm, following the example of Jesus, who humbly walks beside his disciples. Even though today’s technology is a great help in decreasing geographical distances, in order to “travel the same road” it is absolutely necessary to make the effort to stand side by side with young people, being physically present and sharing their hopes and dreams, without trying to make them be what they are not meant to be. In the same way that St. Francis found ways to be close to those dear to him (as we can see in his Letter to Friar Leo), our approach as friars must indicate that if young people “need and wish to come to us, that they should come.”
In addition to walking alongside them, it is also necessary to learn to listen to them. In the world of today, documents, writings, or formal declarations on our part or that of the hierarchy are not sufficient. What is necessary is the ability to allow young people tell their own truth and be shapers of their own story. Before speaking, before wanting to point out the way forward and give quick answers, it is necessary to have the patience of the Master who knows how to question and listen: “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” (Lk 24:17) Such listening comes from the certainty that the young person too is an expression of the voice of God; therefore, it is necessary to understand the encounter as a locus of theology where God is revealed. In order to carry out true evangelization, it is important to come into contact with that which is “divine” in youth, and by looking through the eyes of God, to begin to appreciate the psychology, biology, sociology and anthropology of the young person.
St. Francis received advice, admonitions, corrections, and inspiration from his brothers and sisters; we too should develop the ability to allow ourselves to be questioned, to have our theories and structural assumptions strongly disputed by the young people who are close to us — resisting the temptation of always wanting to have the last word.
II. And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Lk 24:27)
Having listened to their anguish and how they were coping with the recent events of his Passion and Death, Jesus himself begins to help the disciples to interpret these realities in the light of the Word of God.
In this sense, our Franciscan charism has a lot to say to young people. As they engage in their search, they need and expect — from both our behavior and our words — that we be a point of reference for them, a sign and a resource for them as they try to make sense of their issues and interpret what’s going on around them.
If some analysts “speak of a ‘metamorphosis’ of the human condition that gives rise to enormous challenges for everyone in the path to build a sound identity, young people (who are the watchmen and seismographs of every age) perceive them as a source of new opportunities and unprecedented threats more than others do.” (IL 51) Political, religious, moral, social, and existential issues concern them directly, in regard to which we can offer them an understanding based on our charism. This is a second step by which, as brothers and lesser ones, we can help them understand contemporary events, both at a personal and societal level. Thus, it is not sufficient to “wish only to know the [Scriptures] and to interpret them for others” (Adm 7) — we must also be committed to a life witness that is consistent and eloquent. Francis of Assisi was not a theoretician of the spiritual life; he spoke of God in terms of his experience. We too are called to make of our lives a true Gospel for our young people, as an expression of our fidelity to our vocation. Our vows, our witness, our personal commitment, our way of life, and how we face various situations are all ways through which young people discover various means by which the signs of the times can be reinterpreted.
III. Stay with us, Lord. […] Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us? (Lk 24:29,32)
At nightfall, after traveling a long while in his company, the Emmaus disciples ask Jesus to stay with them. During this further time together, sharing took place, friendship was born, and their hearts burned within them.
We friars live in a world full of very many choices; in this context it is necessary that we reinforce our faith in the prophetic force and the relevance of our particular vocation. For many young people today, Franciscan Religious Life is synonymous with having a warm heart. “As we believe more in ourselves and share the riches of our charism with young people, their desire that we not leave them, that we remain with them, will certainly arise in their hearts” (CPO, 2018)
Faced with individualism and indifference, young people expect from us a witness that is a “‘prophecy of fraternity’, a home that is able to become their family.” (IL 72) Faced with a “culture inspired by individualism, consumerism, materialism, and hedonism, where appearances hold sway” (IL 8), our simple and sober way of being can offer a true witness where “what a person is before God, that they are and no more” (Adm 19). For young people who face so many situations of death, violence, war, and marginalization, our meek, peaceful, modest, gentle, and humble way of going about the world (LR 3,11) will serve as a compass to show them the true path of peace. Young people are not afraid of challenges that are bold and radical; for them, Religious Life lived with enthusiasm and passion can provide an answer that is current and relevant. Faced with an ever more secularized society that excludes God as regards how life is lived and how choices are made, our young people are thirsty to be close to people who actually live by faith, brothers whose aim is: “let us desire nothing else, let us want nothing else, let nothing else please us and cause us delight except our Creator, Redeemer and Savior, the only true God.” (ER 23,9) In a world where values are relativized, where everything is provisional and fleeting, our permanent life choice has real appeal, making the hearts of our young people burn within them.
We well know that in some countries our Order faces a significant drop in vocations — for many and various reasons. That said, the desire to follow the path of Religious and priestly vocations cannot be motivated by proselytism, with the maintenance of institutions as its goal. Instead, when we Friars Minor remain vigilant in our vocation to “faithfully observe the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (LR1,1), above all evangelizing by our good works (ER17, 3), young people will see in us the very presence of Christ that many perceived in St. Francis, with the result that holy vocations will flourish. If we show young people the sort of evangelical life that our Seraphic Father asks us to live, and if by our example we encourage them to do the same (but with the characteristics and dynamism proper to youth) then an ardent call will be lit in their hearts that may well result in a new spring of vocations.
Finally, this energy and ardor in the hearts of young people is very engaging. It is not only they who will feel the presence of the Risen Christ — we too, if we have the audacity and the courage to stay a while and share the bread of their lives, will experience how we can be renewed and how we can rediscover the initial enthusiasm so characteristic of youth. For us Friars Minor, Jesus manifests himself in young people, with the result that we in our turn will ask that He stay with us.
IV. Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread. (Lk 24:35)
The Gospel tells us that, after the eyes of the disciples had been opened, Jesus disappeared from their sight. The disciples certainly discovered that, instead of having Jesus before their eyes, they now had him within, because they could recognize him within themselves.
Concluding this Emmaus reflection, we acknowledge that young people and those who accept our vocation, from the moment in which they experience a personal encounter with Jesus, will themselves become disciples and witnesses of the Risen One, thus having a role in evangelization according to what is their call. Our presence among young people must encourage them and help them to follow a path leading to autonomy, maturity, and fulfilment.
When we believe in young people, and when we welcome the dreams and ideals of those who want to accept our vocation, little by little we will make them agents of their own paths. Let us reject any models of formation that lead to childish dependency and let us allow young people to be adults in the faith, in their choices, as well as in the consequences that these entail.
We friars should have the capacity to let them come and go, overcoming the temptation to always be in control, to be indispensable. We must let them assume their role in the Church and be responsible for their own vocation and growth. This outcome would be the culmination of a process that truly allowed them to have a personal encounter with Jesus, with Franciscan spirituality as its foundation; a process that helped them mature in their faith and become ready to take charge of their own story and their own vocation. Just as Christ makes himself present through those who break bread together and live his Gospel call, so too we Friars Minor can be the presence of Francis today, showing to young people the face of Christ who journeys with all of Creation.
While all this is true, nonetheless at this moment in history the Order, as part of the Church, keenly recognizes that some of its members, in common with other priests, and men and women Religious, have by their actions fallen far short of the ideals that this letter presents. They have caused serious harm to some young people and have betrayed their trust. For us, this is a source of pain as well as a cause for shame, and it requires of us to do everything possible to implement and strengthen policies and actions in order to ensure that all young people are safeguarded and respected.
May the Solemnity of our Father Saint Francis, who as a young man was open to welcoming the evangelical newness that the Lord had inspired in him, renew our option to work “affectively and effectively” with young people (Santo Domingo Document, 114). Together with them, may we discern the signs of renewal that the Spirit is stirring up in our Church and in our Order.
Happy Feast of St. Francis,
Pax et Bonum!
Rome, 29 September 2018
Feast of the Archangels, Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael
Br. Michael Anthony Perry, ofm (Min. Gen.)
Br. Julio César Bunader, ofm (Vic. Gen.)
Br. Jürgen Neitzert, ofm (Def. Gen.)
Br. Caoimhín Ó Laoide, ofm (Def. Gen.)
Br. Ignacio Ceja Jiménez, ofm (Def. Gen.)
Br. Nicodème Kibuzehose, ofm (Def. Gen.)
Br. Lino Gregorio Redoblado, ofm (Def. Gen.)
Br. Ivan Sesar, ofm (Def. Gen.)
Br. Valmir Ramos, ofm (Def. Gen.)
Br. Antonio Scabio, ofm (Def. Gen.)
Br. Giovanni Rinaldi, ofm (Sec. Gen.)
Cover Art: St. Francis (Detail) by Br. Christopher Villanueva, OFM