In his opening address at World Youth Day, Pope Francis said that young people need more than help with the basic necessities of life. They need to be directed to the transcendent.
In his opening remarks to the crowds gathered for World Youth Day in Rio, Pope Francis took a moment to address the older generations.
“As I begin my visit to Brazil,” he said, “I am well aware that, in addressing young people, I am also speaking to their families, their local and national church communities, the societies they come from, and the men and women upon whom this new generation largely depends.”
And in addressing the older generations, Pope Francis gave them a commission: to take responsibility for forming the young in a way that will lead to their true fulfillment as persons. The climactic passage of his address is worth quoting at length:
“Our generation will show that it can realize the promise found in each young person when we know how to give them space; how to create the material and spiritual conditions for their full development; how to give them a solid basis on which to build their lives; how to guarantee their safety and their education to be everything they can be; how to pass on to them lasting values that make life worth living; how to give them a transcendent horizon for their thirst for authentic happiness and their creativity for the good; how to give them the legacy of a world worthy of human life; and how to awaken in them their greatest potential as builders of their own destiny, sharing responsibility for the future of everyone.”
I want to draw attention to the Holy Father’s call for parents, teachers, and other people responsible for the formation of youth to give young people “a transcendent horizon” for their pursuit of happiness. What does this metaphor mean? That which transcends “goes beyond.” But beyond what?
Our search for happiness and meaning can’t even get started without our human capabilities: our intellect, first of all, but also our will, our imagination, memory, senses, and physical attributes. These capabilities are by nature all seeking fulfillment. They are all, in a sense, desires that need satisfying.
Because we are embodied spirits, much of our fulfillment is found in some sensible good, like food, water, shelter, or clothing. And yet, because we are embodied spirits, we have desires that cannot be satisfied by any sensible good. My intellect may be curious as to what Prince William and Princess Kate will name their new baby boy, but that kind of information, while good, is not the kind of thing that can bring my desire for knowledge wholly to a rest. The desires of my spiritual capabilities – specifically, my intellect and will – are infinite in their longing. They “thirst” for the whole of Truth and the whole of Goodness and the whole of Beauty. And these desires lead us beyond the boundaries of the physical world, because the physical world cannot deliver an infinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
In the Middle Ages, theologians talked about “the transcendentals” – Truth, Beauty and Goodness foremost among them – describing them as part of the structure of reality wherever we find it, and so transcending of any particular real thing. The truth “2+2=4” transcends the apples I am counting. An act of charity helps me break free from my self-concern and touch the image of God in another. Beauty lifts the soul out of the everyday into a world of infinite delight and refreshment.
The sensible world – the world of sleep and comfort and labor, the world of physical attractiveness and shiny new cars – is by no means intrinsically evil, but at the same time it cannot fulfill the demands of our spiritual nature. In fact, the sensible world can easily lock us into the jail of ourselves. In a passage I love from his Art and Scholasticism, the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain puts the thought this way:
“It is remarkable that men only communicate with one another by passing through [one of the transcendentals]. Only in this way do they escape from the individuality in which matter encloses them. If they remain in the world of their sense needs and sentimental egos, in vain do they tell their stories to one another, they do not understand each other. They observe each other without seeing each other, each one of them infinitely alone, even though work or sense pleasures bind them together.”
The world of their “sense needs and sentimental egos” is the world that Pope Francis is urging our adult generations to help youth to transcend. In order to do so, we older folks must first discover for ourselves the attractiveness of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, the real fountains of youth that enable all of us, young and old, to communicate with one another in the realm of the Infinite.
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