Carlo Acutis doesn’t look like your typical saint. In a photo widely circulated on the internet, he is wearing a red polo shirt with a navy blue collar. He stands against a dazzling mountain backdrop, rucksack straps over his shoulders, with a hint of teenage shyness in his narrowed eyes. Carlo was born in London in 1991, which means that if he were alive today he would be just 27. In the months before he died from leukaemia, aged 15, he created a website that documented Eucharistic miracles. The Eucharist, he said, was “my highway to heaven”.
Last week Pope Francis set the millennial on the path to canonisation when he issued a decree recognising Carlo’s “heroic virtues”. He also advanced the Cause of another teenager: Alexia González-Barros, who died in 1985, aged 14, after a battle with cancer.
It seems significant that the Pope has issued these decrees a few months before the world’s bishops gather in Rome for a synod on “Young people, the faith and vocational discernment”. Last month the Vatican published the synod’s instrumentum laboris, or working document, which will guide the bishops’ discussions. Critics argued that the text dwelt too much on the problems of today’s youth and too little on how the Church can remedy them. One pointed out that the document makes 25 references to sexuality and just 17 to Jesus.
This is perhaps unfair. The instrumentum laboris is meant to give an overview of the challenges, rather than suggest ready-made solutions before discussions have even begun. It was compiled with the help of young people, so to some extent it genuinely reflects their concerns.
Still, we must remember that what the Church offers young people is not sociological analysis – however acute – but salvation. It is not presenting youngsters with a provocative set of opinions, but rather the grace to make progress in a lifelong journey towards God. The lives of Carlo Acutis and Alexia González-Barros are worth a million working documents because they testify to this truth. They didn’t seek to change the Church, but rather allowed the Church to transform them.
Both Carlo and Alexis were unusual in that they faced mortality at a young age – and with incredible courage. How can the Church inspire the vast majority of youngsters whose lives are less dramatic? It could start by introducing them to Gaudete et Exsultate, the homely reflection on holiness that Francis issued in March. There, the Pope discusses what he calls “the saints next door”: those who draw nearer to God through daily perseverance rather than astonishing deeds.
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