Challenge or comfort? That might well capture the question at the heart of the pastoral care of youth. In their inexperience, insecurity and anxiety, do they need to be comforted by their pastors, who make them feel more at home in the alien world of adolescence and adulthood?
Or in their willingness to try new things, their idealism and their confidence, do they need to be challenged by their pastors, to strive to be something more than the world around them expects or even encourages them to be?
With the youth synod less than six months away, that is an important question before the Church. The answer of course is both. Challenge and comfort are needed. But when it comes to youth, it might be that both St John Paul II and Pope Francis agree that young Catholics need more of the former and less of the latter.
That John Paul proposed a heroic ideal to young people is well known – and they responded in kind, not only in the massive World Youth Days, but in the individual conversions and vocations that marked the “John Paul generation”.
It may be thought that Pope Francis would not follow St John Paul II on this path. After all, his pastoral heart tends to comforting the afflicted rather than challenging the capable. His favoured image of the “field hospital” is that of a Church full of the battered and the broken, the injured and the weak. He quite rightly observes that heroic action is not to be proposed to those laying prone and wounded.
Yet when it comes to youth, the Holy Father is more likely to challenge. In his typical style, his pastoral advice is phrased in the negative, as a warning about what not to be and what not to do. Who can forget WYD 2016 in Kraków, when he told the vast assembly not to be “couch potatoes” – this, after they had walked for hours to meet him?
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