Young People Want the Truth, Not Watered-Down Teachings: Priest on Youth Synod

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Photo:  Fr. Joseph Carola, SJ, speaks at Apostolic Penitentiary in Rome, April 26, 2018; Diane Montagna/LifeSiteNews

By Diane Montagna, LifeSiteNews, June 1, 2018

ROME, June 1, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) — Rather than watered-down answers and accommodation, young people want authentic witnesses to Jesus Christ who will lead them to the truth and love that alone can fulfill their deepest desires, an American-born Jesuit in Rome has said ahead of the upcoming Vatican youth synod.

Speaking at a two-day conference organized by the Holy See’s Apostolic Penitentiary in April, Fr. Joseph Carola, SJ, a professor of Patristics at the Pontifical Gregorian University, delivered a talk inspired by the rich young man’s question to Jesus: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk 10:17).

“If we hope to be effective evangelists, we cannot water-down Catholic doctrine and practice,” the priest said. “When Jesus accompanies us, He does not seek to accommodate us by compromising the truth.”

The Apostolic Penitentiary’s conference gathered Vatican officials, priests, men and women religious and lay faithful under the theme: “Confession, Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment.”

Fr. Carola described his presentation as “a lectio divina on Mark 10 intended to help young people wholeheartedly answer the good Lord’s loving call to follow Him. It has the further goal of helping the not-so-young to understand where young people are today — their challenges and their deepest desires,” he told LifeSiteNews.

The Apostolic Penitentiary is one of the three tribunals of the Roman Curia. It is responsible for issues relating to the forgiveness of sins in the Catholic Church and has jurisdiction over matters regarding the internal forum.

Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, who serves as Major Penitentiary, opened the conference with an inaugural address.

In his talk (see full text below), Fr. Carola tells the story of the passionate plea of a young man named Matthew during a providential encounter at a medieval cathedral in England.

In light of Matthew’s story, Fr. Carola turns to that pivotal passage on Christ’s dialogue with the rich young man in the Gospel of Mark, which touches directly upon youth, the faith and vocational discernment.

Drawing on Pope John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (which gives central place to Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man), the writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Augustine, and even the wisdom of a country western classic, Fr. Carola examines the final document compiled during the recent pre-synodal meeting in Rome.

With years of experience working with young people — as a teacher, university chaplain, retreat master and spiritual father — the Texan-born Jesuit then reflects on the particular threats that young people face in the technological age, and how the Church can best respond.

He calls on priests, and particularly priest-confessors, to be faithful spiritual fathers and authentic spiritual guides to young people. With keen insight, he says that young people today often need the healing that comes from experiencing “a fatherly love that can be trusted.”

For a priest-confessor, this means providing a love that listens and encourages but also challenges — “a fatherly love which fears neither to discipline nor to speak the truth for the sake of the other’s well-being in time and in eternity,” he says.

“When Jesus accompanies us, He does not seek to accommodate us by compromising the truth,” Fr. Carola said. In his invitation to the rich young man and his teaching on the Eucharist (John 6), Jesus shows us that “accompaniment has nothing to do with accommodation. On the contrary, it entails authenticity.”

Citing the pre-synodal document, he said: “‘Today’s young people are looking for an authentic Church’ (PMFD §11) — an authentic Church, not an accommodating Church.”

Young people are not interested in “watered-down answers” in doctrine or practice, the Jesuit said. They want to be “young men and women of faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And they want faithful and authentic spiritual leaders who know the Lord and want to lead them into the fullness of His truth and His love.

Here below is the full text of Fr. Joseph Carola’s talk, delivered in Rome on April 26, 2018.

  1. M. D. G.

Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Gospel: Mark 10:17-22

Matthew’s Story

In the summer of 2004, I, along with a priest-friend of mine, paid a visit to the Southwell Minster, that is, to the medieval cathedral church of the Anglican Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham in central England.  In the twelfth century the Normans had deconstructed the Saxon church that originally stood on that site.  Using its stones, they built the present, larger structure.  One century later, the Normans’ Romanesque choir itself proved to be too small, and it was replaced by an even larger Gothic chancel.  With its combination of Roman and pointed arches, the Southwell Minster is indeed a magnificent church.  Its beautiful and soaring architecture lifts one’s mind and heart to God.  As night fell on that mid-summer’s day, I suggested to my priest-companion that we remain for evensong chanted by the cathedral choir.  He agreed, but promptly excused himself in order first to take care of the needs of nature before offering to the good Lord his evening praise.  In the meantime, I looked for a seat in the choir.

When I passed from the Romanesque nave through the roodscreen into the Gothic chancel, I saw a young fellow standing at a bronze-eagle lectern.  I presumed that he was one of the teenage choir boys preparing the short scriptural reading for vespers.  Not wanting to sit in the wrong place, I approached him and asked where I should sit.  Immediately, he stepped down from the lectern and looked at me as if I had just caught him doing something that he should not have been doing.  After five years of teaching high school boys in the Southern United States, how well I knew that look on an adolescent’s face!  But, I thought to myself, perhaps I had simply startled him.  So, I asked again: “Where should I sit for vespers?”  But he continued to look at me whimsically, wondering, it seemed, why this priest had no idea where to sit in his own church.  I realized then that he was not one of the choir boys.

“You are not from here,” I said.

“No, I am not,” he responded.

“Obviously, neither am I,” I continued, “In fact, I am a Catholic priest from Rome.”

“From Rome?”  He seemed intrigued.  So, we introduced ourselves to one another.  His name was Matthew.

“This is a very beautiful church, isn’t it, Matthew?” I commented.  “Its architectural beauty lifts one’s mind and heart to God.”

Suddenly, Matthew interjected, “I don’t want to be an atheist!”  It was as if he were drowning in a sea of unbelief and gasping for air.  Atheism threatened to engulf him, and, if he did nothing, he would by default end up an atheist.  “I don’t want to be an atheist!” he passionately pleaded.

“Of course not, Matthew,” I replied.  “Do you know what Saint Augustine says?  God has created us for Himself and our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.”

“I have been christened,” Matthew noted with pride.  “My parents do not go to church, but my grandparents do.”

I encouraged Matthew to take the initiative and to go by himself to church on Sundays.  Then it suddenly occurred to me that, when I had first entered the choir and saw Matthew at the lectern, he was reading the Bible.  I had no idea what scriptural passage he was reading, but I was convinced that the good Lord intended to speak to Matthew through His word.

“Matthew,” I said, “God has something to say to you in His word.  Let us see what it is.”  So, we both stepped back up to the lectern.  The Bible was opened to the prophet Isaiah, chapter fifty-five.  Together we read: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:1-2).

“Do you know what the prophet means by water?” I asked.

“Water is just water, right?” he responded.

“Jesus is the Living Water,” I explained, “and, through the prophet Isaiah, Jesus is calling you to Himself.  Matthew, young people your age can waste not only a lot of money but also their very lives on alcohol and drugs which never satisfy.  But, as Isaiah asks, why spend your money on such things?  Matthew, Jesus is the Living Water who alone satisfies our deepest desires, and He is calling you to Himself.  Never forget these words.  Never forget this moment.”

“I won’t,” he said.  Just then, from outside the choir, his father called to him, telling him to come along, for they were leaving.

After Matthew had departed, I sat down in the choir.  Soon afterwards, my friend returned from the toilet, finding me immensely consoled even before we had begun to pray.  As it turned out, I had no reason to fear sitting in the wrong seat that evening.  For, unbeknownst to us, it was the one evening of the week when the cathedral choir did not sing evensong.  But the good Lord, knowing better than we, had used our ignorance for His own designs.

The Journey to Jerusalem

Last month, three hundred young people from around the world came together here in Rome.  Across the globe, fifteen thousand more young people joined with them via various Facebook groups.  They met in order to make their own preliminary contribution to the Bishops’ Synod, which will meet next October in order to discuss young people, the faith and vocational discernment.  In their pre-synodal meeting’s final document, these young people identify both the foundational reality of their baptismal vocation and the importance of Scripture in their ecclesial journey with Jesus to the Father—just as young Matthew had done on that summer’s day in Southwell.  Their document rightly counsels “a return to Scripture [in order] to understand more deeply the person of Christ, His life, and His humanity” (Pre-Synodal Meeting Final Document (= PMFD) §6).  “We ask,” the document states further on, “that the Church continue to proclaim the joy of the Gospel with the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (PMFD §11).  In the Spirit, we ourselves turn this afternoon to the Scriptures in order to consider a pivotal passage from the Gospel of Saint Mark which touches directly upon youth, the faith and vocational discernment.  We run swiftly with that young rich man in Mark 10 who reverently kneels before the Lord Jesus and sincerely asks Him what he must do to inherit eternal life.  As Pope Saint John Paul II rightly observes in his masterful Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor: “Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man continues, in a sense, in every period of history, including our own.  The question: ‘Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?’ arises in the heart of every individual, and it is Christ alone who is capable of giving the full and definitive answer” (Saint John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor §25).

Saint Mark begins his account by noting that, “as [Jesus] was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). Saint Matthew specifies that the rich fellow was a young man (Matthew 19:22).  The timing of the young man’s encounter with Jesus is not insignificant.  Jesus is about to set out on a journey—a journey that will take Him to Jerusalem, Calvary and the Cross; a journey which will pass through that narrow, cruciform gate to His wondrous Resurrection and glorious Ascension into heaven.  This is the journey on which Jesus will invite that young man to join Him.  Kneeling down before the Lord, however, the young man first questions Jesus about life’s ultimate meaning.  His posture reveals the reverence which he has for Jesus.  But the title “Good Teacher” with which he addresses the Lord implies much more.  As Jesus Himself observes: “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18).  In sum, the young man’s gesture and words are fundamentally an act of worship.  They find a particularly eloquent expression in Saint Ignatius Loyola’s First Principle and Foundation strategically placed at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises: “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul” (Saint Ignatius Loyola, Spiritual Exercises §23).[1]  Indeed, the young man praises and reverences Christ as he asks Him by what divine service he might inherit eternal life.

Jesus the Good Teacher responds with sound pedagogy.  Firstly, like a good Jesuit, He answers a question with a question: “Why do you call me good?”  But secondly and more to the pedagogical point, Jesus begins with what is familiar.  “You know the commandments” (Mark 10:19), He says, proceeding then to list a number of them.  “It is clear,” comments Saint John Paul II, “that Jesus does not intend to list each and every one of the commandments required in order to ‘enter into life’, but rather wishes to draw the young man’s attention to the ‘centrality’ of the Decaloguewith regard to every other precept, inasmuch as it is the interpretation of what the words ‘I am the Lord your God’ mean for man” (Saint John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor §13).  Responding to Jesus, the young man insists: “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth” (Mark 10:20).  Yes, for some time now, he has lived a virtuous life, but he desires something more.  He seeks perfection and wants to know what he must do to attain it.  His quest reminds us that that faith, which gives ultimate meaning to this life, is not merely a matter of morals—even though a moral life is foundational for living a life of faith.  Jesus’ response, moreover, confirms faith’s transcendent reality.  For the Lord does not impose further tasks to be accomplished.  Rather, He invites the young man to abandon all and afterwards to enter wholeheartedly into a relationship with Himself, revealing that Christian discipleship is far more a matter of being than of doing.  Indeed, to believe in Jesus, to behold Him and to be with Him is to inherit eternal life.  For, by Christ’s saving grace, eternal life itself is none other than to see God and to partake of His divine nature.

Jesus’ Loving Gaze

The Marcan narrative of the rich young man continues, noting that “Jesus looking upon him loved him,” (Mark 10:21a).  Jesus’ loving gaze lies at the heart of this Gospel account and forms its indispensable framework.  Out of His love for the young man flows Jesus’ radical request that he abandon all and follow Him.  There is no vocational discernment properly made outside of Jesus’ all-encompassing love for us.  For without His love and His grace, we cannot even take the first step toward answering His call and embracing our vocation in life.  The initiative is always Christ’s.  It is He who calls.  With the help of His grace, it is we who respond.

In retreats preached to young people, I always begin with a meditation on God’s love for us, reflecting in particular upon the fourth chapter of the First Letter of Saint John: “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).  It is crucial that we begin here.  For in experiencing God’s love for us, we come to realize that we are loveable and indeed loved.  We also come to recognize that our love for God is always a response to His ever-faithful love for us.  Again, as Saint John says, “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).  It can be a great struggle for young people and even not-so-young people to acknowledge that they are loveable and loved.  Young people often struggle with low self-esteem arising from various causes: broken homes, failure at school, peer bullying or other young people’s apparently glamorous successes deceptively depicted in a constant stream of digital photographs displayed on social media.  These and other factors easily provoke low self-esteem among today’s youth.  In her insightful book iGen published last year (2017), Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University in California studies the generation born after 1995, that is, the first generation never to have known a world without the internet.[2]  She argues convincingly that the smartphone has placed young people at an even greater risk of suffering from low self-esteem, unhappiness, depression and suicide.  A mental health crisis is looming, she forewarns.  How much more on this account is it crucial to help young people recognize God’s love for them, to help them turn their eyes away from those luminous blue-light screens, which they hold in their hands, and behold the loving gaze of Jesus, who, taking them by the hand, calls them to discipleship.  Indeed, as Saint John Paul II explains in Veritatis Splendor: “Jesus, as a patient and sensitive teacher, answers the young man by taking him, as it were, by the hand, and leading him step by step to the full truth” (Saint John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor §8).

Generational studies aid our quest to find effective means to communicate the Gospel today.  These studies’ insights serve to indicate how best to approach the contemporary demands of evangelization.  But it is, nonetheless, essential to recall that, despite the rapid anthropological shift which has begun in the twenty-first century, that is, the formation of a homo technologicus for better or for worse, man at the core of his being remains the same.  Much about the human condition does indeed change from age to age.  But who man is, created in God’s image, and who he is called to be through divine adoption have not changed, nor will man’s foundational identity or his ultimate vocation ever change.  We have been created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord and by this graced-means to inherit eternal life.[3]  On this account, the young Saint Augustine of Hippo is not fundamentally different from today’s youth.  “And what was it that I delighted in,” the Bishop of Hippo asks, reflecting upon his own adolescence, “but to love and to be loved?” (Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions 2.2)  To apply the words of a country-western classic well-known in my part of the world (I hail from Texas!), Saint Augustine spent much of his youth “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places!”  Disordered loves kept him from discovering life’s true meaning.  He ran after created beauty while failing to love beauty’s Creator, whose love alone satisfies our restless hearts.  “Late have I love you, O beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you,” Saint Augustine confesses (Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions 10.27).  The North African Bishop recognizes that it is God’s love alone poured forth into our hearts (cf. Romans 5:5) that rightly orders all our loves in our wholehearted love for God.  What Saint Mark writes about Jesus’ exchange with the young man is equally true for both young Augustine and every young person today: “Jesus looking upon him loved him” (Mark 10:21a).  Jesus the Good Teacher gazes upon us with love, and it is His love that calls forth our response.

Self-abandonment in Christ

Within this context of the Lord’s all-encompassing love, Jesus says to the young man: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21b).  Jesus counsels self-abandonment in order to obtain the unicum necessarium—the one thing necessary, the better portion which Mary of Bethany enjoyed.  He instructs the young man to sell his worldly possessions and to give the profits as alms to the poor.  In this manner he will be perfect, that is, merciful, as his heavenly Father is merciful.  He will have treasure in heaven.  True treasure will replace the perishable goods which beforehand he had erroneously prized.  Or, as the good Lord through the prophet Isaiah proposed to young Matthew: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2).  Thus does Jesus counsel freedom from disordered loves.  But it is not simply a matter of freedom from.  Jesus’ call also entails a freedom for—the freedom to receive the life-giving love which He alone imparts.  For without the latter reception, the former abandonment would prove difficult, if not impossible.  As Father Iain Matthew in his study of Saint John of the Cross insightfully notes: “To step free from enslavement, we need a love which fills us at the point we thought the enslaving loves were filling us.”[4]  “Give everything away, and, come, follow me,” Jesus commands.  This self-emptying—a freedom from—does nothing other than open the disciple’s heart—a freedom for—to receive the fullness of Christ’s love which alone satisfies our deepest longings.  In Carmelite terms, the nada of abandonment is the necessary prelude to receiving the todo of Christ.  Perhaps this dynamic helps to shed light upon an observation found in the pre-synodal meeting’s final document: “Young people need to encounter the mission of Christ, not what they may perceive as an impossible moral expectation” (PMFD §6).  Indeed, personally encountering Christ gives rise to our hope that what is impossible for us to accomplish by ourselves becomes possible for us with God’s help (cf. Mark 10:27).  In this same spirit, at the beginning of his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI preached: “And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ!  He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything.  When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return.  Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ—and you will find true life” (Pope Benedict XVI, Inaugural Mass Homily, 24 April 2005).

Christ’s invitation to discipleship, however, sadly goes unanswered in the Gospel account which we are considering.  For “at that saying [the young man’s] countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22).  The young man fails to comprehend the evangelical logic which proposes that in order to find life one must first lose it.  Or perhaps he simply lacks the courage to embrace what he otherwise comprehends.  After his departure Jesus says to His disciples: “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10:23).  Then, He repeats Himself, adding, as various manuscript traditions attest, “how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the Kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:24). The young man has many possessions, yes, but it is not his material wealth per se that keeps him from following Jesus.  It is rather his inability to trust Jesus instead of trusting in his wealth.  He leaves sorrowful because he cannot say “Jezu, ufam tobie—Jesus, I trust in You”.  Abandoning Jesus instead of his possessions, he ceases to be a pilgrim, who seeks the Kingdom faithfully, and becomes, in Pope Francis’ words, a drifter, who wanders the world aimlessly (cf. Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium §170).

Authenticity, Not Accommodation

Jesus’ invitation to the young man ranks among the Gospel’s hard sayings.  Recall Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist in the sixth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel.  “Many of his disciples, when they heard it,” Saint John recounts, “said, ‘This is a hard saying, who can listen to it?’  After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:60, 66).  In neither case—in neither Mark 10 nor John 6—does Jesus accommodate His teaching in order to guarantee His disciples’ allegiance.  As the young man turns away, Jesus does not protest, saying, “It was only a hyperbole; of course, you can keep something!”  Nor as the crowds depart from the synagogue at Capernaum does Jesus insist in order to calm their concerns that He intended His Eucharistic doctrine merely as a metaphor.  No, in neither case does Jesus compromise His teaching.  Rather, He allows these would-be disciples to leave Him.  To abandon Jesus rather than our own personal possessions or theological opinions is tremendous.  The mere thought of it should cause us to tremble and fill us with dread.  But these Gospel passages do serve to demonstrate an important point: when Jesus accompanies us, He does not seek to accommodate us by compromising the truth.  As these Gospel passages reveal, accompaniment has nothing to do with accommodation.  On the contrary, it entails authenticity.

The pre-synodal meeting’s final document emphasizes that young people seek authenticity.  “Young people want authentic witnesses,” it states, “men and women who vibrantly express their faith and relationship with Jesus while encouraging others to approach, meet, and fall in love with Jesus themselves” (PMFD §5).  They seek authentic models of faith—an authenticity which entails a transparent vulnerability.  In other words, they seek those who in their proclamation of Jesus also witness to their own lived experience of Jesus as their merciful Savior (cf. PMFD §7).  “Today’s young people,” the document continues, “are looking for an authentic Church” (PMFD §11)—an authentic Church, not an accommodating Church.  As the young redactors of the final document insist, young people today are not interested in “watered-down answers” (PMFD §11).  In other words, youth do not fear the hard sayings of Jesus.  On the contrary, they seek to embrace the challenge of Christian discipleship from which the young man in Saint Mark’s Gospel sadly turns away.  As we listen to today’s youth and strive, as they themselves request, to share with them the authentic joy of the Gospel, we do well to recall here the admonition that Pope Blessed Paul VI offers to evangelizers in his first Encyclical Letter Ecclesiam Suam.  “Indeed,” the Pontiff writes,

sometimes even the apostolic desire for a ready passport into secular society and the determination to make oneself acceptable to men and particularly to the youth of today, prompts certain people to lay aside the principles which characterize our faith and to reject the sort of dignity which gives meaning and force to our determination to make contact with others and makes our teaching effective. Is it not, perhaps, true that some of the younger clergy and religious, in their laudable endeavor to come closer to the masses and to particular groups, aim at becoming like them rather than different from them? By this worthless imitation they forfeit the real value and effectiveness of their endeavors (Blessed Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam §49).

In other words, if we hope to be effective evangelists, we cannot water-down Catholic doctrine and practice.  The youth who gathered last month here in Rome have emphasized this point.

Their final document, of course, does not shy away from mentioning controversial topics.  It acknowledges that some may want the Church to change her teaching—which she cannot do if she is to remain in the truth of Christ—“or at least,” it suggests, that these individuals want “to have access to a better explanation and to more formation on these questions” (PMFD §5).  This is certainly a legitimate request which Catholic educators in the service of the faith should not fail to fulfill.  But “many young Catholics,” the document continues, “accept these teachings and find in them a source of joy.  They desire the Church to not only hold fast to them amid unpopularity but to also proclaim them with greater depth of teaching” (PMFD §5).  Unlike the rich young man in Saint Mark’s Gospel, these young Catholics trust in Jesus.  Like young Matthew, they do not want to be atheists.  Rather, they want to be and indeed are young men and women of faith—faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.  They do not fear to answer His call.  They do not reject His hard sayings.  They are not interested in accommodation.  Rather, they seek authenticity, that is, they gladly profess the orthodox faith.  When others would abandon Jesus’ company rather than abandon themselves in Him, these young people say together with Saint Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).

The Priest-Confessor

In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis offers various insights into the art of accompaniment.  In their own way, these insights answer the question often proposed by young people: “What would Jesus do?”  They provide a model for the priest-confessor, who, through the sacramental grace of Holy Orders, speaks the very “I” of Jesus, saying, “I absolve you from your sins.”  Pope Francis reminds both the priest-confessor and other pastoral workers that they “can make present the fragrance of Christ’s closeness and his personal gaze” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium §169).  In particular, the compassionate gaze of the priest-confessor sacramentally conformed to Christ reflects the gaze of Jesus who “looking upon [the young man] loved him” (Mark 10:21a).  It is, according to Pope Francis, a gaze “which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium §169).  The journey, which it initiates, “must lead others ever closer to God, in whom we attain true freedom” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium §170).  Patiently listening to the other and gently taking him by the hand, the priest-confessor aims to “awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium §171).  By his patience and compassion, the priest-confessor seeks not so much to gain the other’s trust in himself as to help the other to come to trust in Jesus.  For only when the penitent can sincerely say, “Jesus, I trust in You,” can he freely abandon himself to the Lord.

From 2005 until 2016 I served as a chaplain to American university students studying in Rome.  In my chaplaincy, I soon discovered how important it is for the priest to be a father.  At the end of each semester, I would receive notes from my students thanking me for having been a father to them.  The word “healing” often appeared in those notes as well.  A growing crisis threatens fatherhood in Western society.  Children often grow up without a strong, nurturing father present in the home.  On this account, the priest’s spiritual paternity—a fatherly love which can be trusted—is of crucial importance.  “What would Jesus do?” young people ask.  Jesus reveals to us the Father’s love.  The priest, who is an alter Christus caput, is called to do the same.  He is to love with the love of the Father—a fatherly love which fears neither to discipline nor to speak the truth for the sake of the other’s well-being in time and in eternity.  Like Jesus the Good Teacher, the priest-confessor listens.  He responds firstly with what is familiar in order to be heard.  He encourages, but he also challenges.  Like Jesus he speaks the truth in charity, inviting the other to Christian discipleship without compromise.  He speaks most powerfully when his own life confirms his words.  As the pre-synodal meeting’s final document attests, young people deeply desire such faithful fathers and authentic spiritual guides.

Young Matthew desperately did not want to be an atheist.  In his passionate plea, we hear the bi-millennial echo of the rich young man: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  In response, may we, the Church’s ministers and her people, never fail to proclaim the unicum necessarium—the one thing necessary.  May we lovingly invite young people to give their lives to Jesus in order that they may find true life—eternal life—in Him.

Father Joseph Carola, S.J.

Penitenzieria Apostolica

Vatican City, 26 April 2018

[1] Saint Ignatius Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl, S.J. (Chicago: Loyola Press, 1951), p. 12.

[2] Jean M. Twenge, iGen (New York: Atria Books, 2017).

[3] These theological-anthropological considerations are just another way of acknowledging that dynamic interaction between the immutable deposit of faith and its effective contemporary proclamation, which Pope Saint John XXIII identified in Gaudet Mater Ecclesia at the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

[4] Father Iain Matthew, The Impact of God: Soundings from St John of the Cross(London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995), p. 49.