The Holy Father took notes and offered the young adults some advice they will not soon forget
On one of my first nights in Cuba, I took a walk in the town square and was surprised by the number of young people sitting clustered around smart phones and laptops, taking advantage of the wi-fi beamed into the park. The blue glow from their devices lit up happy faces enjoying music videos and entertainment news.
That seemed to be the only thing they had in common with their counterparts to the north.
This is a generation that has inherited relativism rather than the state-imposed atheism of their parents. Cohabitation seems easier than marriage. Omnipresent steel bars on doors and windows point to a prevalence of burglary. A lack of hope coexists with the desire to have something impossibly better. Propaganda painted on walls seems out of place and ironic. The ideology of years past has become irrelevant for this generation. Church attendance is low. Sacramental preparation for First Holy Communion and Confirmation is low. Participation in Mass is sketchy and random if other things present themselves. It reminds me of what Pope Benedict predicted about the Church becoming very small and having to re-emerge again in small, but faithful groups.
Generación Y, as Cubans refer to this generation, may aspire to the same things as American Millennials, but somewhere along the line they learned a kind of helpless dullness in the face of socio-economic failure.
The joyful tweets of #PopeIsHope and #GoodIsWinning seemed like an impossibility in that first encounter in the park, and not because Twitter is blocked.
Yet, for the faithful youth, there is joy. There is hope fueled with fervor. Pope Francis spoke to that hope and more, encouraging Cuban youth to aspire for things beyond what they think are possible.
On Sunday, September 20, 2015, Pope Francis addressed a cheering crowd of young adults at the Felix Varela Cultural Center in Havana.
The young man chosen to speak on behalf of Cuba’s youth first asked the Holy Father to bless a cross that will travel to the next World Youth Day, and then launched into a heartfelt explanation of what lies in the hearts of many youth.
He explained that they are a generation facing troubles so deep it often causes a lack of faith. He told the pope that they face socio-economic problems plaguing the times in which they live, and that they are made up Christians of many denominations, practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions, believers of simple faith and deep faith, non-denominational and non-believers, but all hoping for a future Cuba filled with changes.
Then he asked Pope Francis to pray for their renewed hope to dream and be happy in this complex situation in which they live.
Unspoken, but hanging in the air, is the desire to leave and pursue those dreams elsewhere. Yet, it is this generation that will build a new society in Cuba.
Pope Francis responded to the discourse with encouragement. He took notes while the young man spoke, and was careful to address the points in relation to where the youth are, and where they can go. He said:
Open yourselves and dream. Dream that the world with you can be different. Dream that if you give the best of yourself, you are going to help this world be different. Don’t forget. Dream. If you get carried away and dream too much and life cuts you off, don’t worry. Dream and share your dreams. Speak about the great things that you want, because inasmuch as your capacity to dream is greater, when life leaves you only half way, you will have gone farther. So, first dream.
“Share your dreams,” he urged, to build community and encourage each other. “Make social friendships,” in order to move forward in a culture of encounter.
This last thing, he explained, is essential. It is important to live in a spirit of encounter, to understand each other, to be in community.
The Pope punctuated his advice with an African proverb: If one wants to get somewhere quickly, go alone, but if one wants to travel a long way, travel with companions.
The Pope’s conclusion, the usual request for prayers, added an acknowledgment of the diversity in the youth, “If you can’t pray for me, at least wish me well.”
Everyone I spoke to the rest of the week talked about that encounter with the youth. It must have sown seeds of hope, even faith, not just in young people but for everyone listening. The second half of the Pope’s request, to wish him well in spite of religious leanings resonated strongly with those people who have a cultural tie to Catholicism but aren’t practicing. The Pope, it seems, appealed to everyone because he represents something they don’t always have — acceptance of who they are, regardless of their circumstances.
I expect that those young people present for the address will realize many dreams in the years to come. I expect they will take Pope Francis’ advice and seek encounter, rather than ideology.
Pope Francis modeled and spoke implicitly about the spiritual and corporal works of mercy without ever coming out directly and stating it. The casual observer would have missed the deeply catechetical example he gave in Cuba, but perhaps that was the intention. As this younger generation, generally uncatechized in the tenets of the Church, work through encounter with each other, they may eventually reach the ultimate encounter, with Christ.
It seems to me that the #PopeIsHope. And #GoodIsInFactWinning.Embed from Getty Images
Maria Morera Johnson (@bego) teaches at Georgia Piedmont Technical College. Her book, My Badass Book of Saints: Courageous Women Who Showed Me How to Live will be released in November. Find her blog here, and follow her on Facebook.