Finding God in the culture of youth

|| By John Sivalon, M.M.

A Maryknoll priest encourages us to follow the Vatican II directive to read ‘the signs of the times’

When I asked 30 freshman students at the Roman Catholic university where I teach what they thought of Vatican II, all of them looked back at me with blank, questioning stares: “What planet are you from?” they seemed to say. Undaunted, I continued my inquiry with detailed follow-up questions to specific students—to no avail. Not a single student knew a thing about the Second Vatican Council.

This was a sobering experience that tempered my enthusiasm, but it also was a dramatic reminder of a key insight of Vatican II: Don’t romanticize the past. Instead, look continually outward to the world and read “the signs of the times” as revelatory of the Word of God.

Since his election last year, Pope Francis has dramatically reminded us in words and actions of this insight of Vatican II. He has continually looked out to the world and reached out to the “other”— condemning the mistreatment of immigrants crossing perilous seas, inviting atheists and humanists to dialogue, corresponding with gay and lesbian Italian Catholics previously ignored by the Church, and kneeling down and washing the feet of women prisoners. These acts of engagement with the world stem from his profound love for the Church and awareness of the threat to it: that it turn in on itself and become increasingly self-referential in its self-understanding.

Vatican II represented the profound recovery of this insight of our faith. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, chastised his readers (then and now) and argued that there is no excuse for not knowing God. Creation is the very first expression of the word of God, he said, and that includes the histories and cultures of people as they change over time. The Church in Vatican II made its peace with the modern world after nearly 400 years of episodic fear, hostility and condemnation. And it called on Catholics to continue the process the council had begun by continually “reading the signs of the times.”

So, the culture of my young students—so oblivious to that momentous council—is one that must be listened to as Catholics today discern God’s presence and how God is calling us as a “pilgrim people” in search of divine goodness. The culture of youth is a wondrous and mysterious culture, and I am an alien in it, a fact of which my students are fond of reminding me. They tell me it is a compliment when they call me “vintage,” a label I find more fitting for an old bottle of wine than for a struggling elder desperately trying to understand and minister among them. And, yet, we engage with each other through discussion and conversation, and in that engagement there is discernment and discovery of the voice of God.

Pope Francis says we cannot insist only on issues related to topics such as abortion and sexual orientation, that we must talk about them in context, and proclaim in “missionary style” the “simple, profound, radiant” essentials of the Gospel, which is the love of God, reaching out to the marginalized and living authentic lives for the poor. His insights, I have discovered closely align with what we hear listening to the values of students and the culture of our time.

While some believers decry this culture as an opponent to their beliefs and present strategies for the re-Christianization of Western culture, we as missionaries are moved to recall the basic missionary principle that “God was here long before we arrived.” This moves us to a position of listening rather than imposing, of discovering rather than declaring. Thus, unless God has jumped ship in North America, as a believer, I understand this culture in which we live as revelatory of a God who communicates. Its deeper values can be the ground for the renewal of our understanding of faith and mission.

I believe that young people’s openness and acceptance of diversity and their sense of the interconnectedness of all reality free our imaginations to consider anew the beautiful mystery of God as Trinity. The Trinity affirms both the unity and diversity that exist in God and creation. This understanding of the Trinity opens to us the possibility of the incorporation of humanity and all creation into the divine life without being homogenized or contained by it.

Where I find young people, Vatican II and Pope Francis most aligned is in their hunger for authenticity. My students talk about social justice and rally around those prophets among us who truly commit themselves to the oppressed, the excluded and the poor.

Speakers at the university who draw the most students are those who have proven themselves in the  struggle for justice alongside the oppressed. Their young minds remain hopeful that a better world is possible and they have yet to be infected by the “globalization of indifference” that Pope Francis has so strongly condemned.

In his homily on the Italian island of Lampedusa, he described this phenomenon as: “The culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles … We are accustomed to the suffering of others; it doesn’t concern us; it’s none of our business.”

Instead, he said, referring to the suffering of people trying to reach Europe in precarious boats from Africa, “Let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty in the world, in ourselves, and even in those who anonymously make socio-economic decisions that open the way to tragedies like this. ‘Who has wept?’ Who in today’s world has wept?”

I think young people, still so very close to the first cry of birth, are the ones who weep at the injustice and suffering of this world today. Who will hear their cries?

Father John Sivalon of Butte, Mont., is the former superior general of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. He is a visiting professor of theology and religious studies at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, and author of the Orbis book God’s Mission and Postmodern Culture.

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