This week I was invited to Villanova University to participate in their conference celebrating the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’s election, titled “Pope Francis – A Voice Crying Out in the World: Mercy, Justice, Love, and Care for the Earth.” The esteemed list of participants included Cardinals Tobin of Newark and Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Vatican voices Margaret Archer and Antonio Spadaro, S.J., theological authorities John O’Malley, S.J., Massimo Faggioli, and Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, S.J., and secular experts Jeffrey Sachs and Michele Pistone, along with dozens of scholars and practitioners.
My small contribution was a panel along with my friends and colleagues Mary Beth Yount of Neumann University and Katherine Schmidt of Molloy College. We presented a theological reading of the signs of our times which we titled: “The Pope and the Nones’ New Habits: Pope Francis, the Millennial Generation, and the Post-Post-Conciliar Church.” The three of us are currently engaged in a number of initiatives geared toward providing space and access for younger theologians.
We have set a somewhat arbitrary entrance bar for many of our projects that one needs to be born after the election of John Paul II in 1978 to qualify as a member, although of course we welcome the growing interest of established thinkers and scholars who engage with our peers as they come into to their own in leadership positions in the church, academy and world.
About 70 percent of Americans have no direct memory of the Second Vatican Council. Most of us were born years or decades after this remarkable event took place. And yet we all continue to live in its momentous wake. We must continue to think through important technological, ecological, and pastoral realities that were not the same when our mentors made their most substantial contributions to the life of the church.
One area most younger theologians agree upon is that the church has an admirable goal of evangelizing to the “nones and dones” (those who claim “no” religion and/or are exasperated with Christian life). But we hold, too, that this cannot be the end of the story. The institutional church must also listen to and learn from the vast majority of these post-post-conciliar young adults, if they and we hope to have relevancy to their lives and concerns.
Our systems of production and consumption have subjugated the entire planet to a hyper-consumerism and commodification that can charitably be described as unsustainable. This burden is disproportionately borne physically by the suffering of the poor especially in the global south, and socially in many cases by the melancholy, isolation and banality of the young, who are increasingly adrift, whether that be understood in relation to statistics surrounding opioid addiction, cyberbullying, depression, global unemployment or religious disaffiliation.
The foundations of trusted institutions like the church, the mass media, the government, the family-based nature of immigration systems, and higher education all tremble under vast and concerted attacks by tribal critiques to which young people are in no way immune. Increased bifurcation and vitriol infects our political, social and ecclesial lives.
Young people are swimming (or clinging to spiritual driftwood) in these poisoned and toxic waters, as the only ones they have ever known. All this while their counterparts in the Southern hemisphere are quite literally bathing in them, along with refuse and pollution.
And yet, we cannot allow pessimism or dismissiveness to define the encounter of the church with the young, who have often been considered too uninformed, inexperienced, or immature to contribute to the wider discourse (until older people need their cable boxes or computers fixed).
The community of the church is for Christians the stable “pillar and ground of truth” (cf. 1 Tim 3:15), but is also always reflective of the transcendent Who is “ever ancient, ever young “ (cf. Saint Augustine). For us as a People to learn from and receive the gifts of those coming to age in a world of immensely problematic realities and in a post-post-conciliar interpretive moment, both sides of the dialogue must be characterized by a commitment to recognize the potential contributions and ineradicable dignity of the other and to risk “going out” (salir/uscire) to reach those we encounter in a spirit of genuine availability and willingness to find there the presence of the God of surprises.
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.