Like Paul, each of us can hear a voice in our heart saying: “I trust you. I know your story and I lay hold of it ..."
Pope Francis has released his annual message for the diocesan-level World Youth Day, an exhortation to young people and an invitation to the next international WYD, which will be held in Lisbon in 2023.
The theme of the message is “Stand up. I appoint you as a witness of what you have seen.” (cf. Acts 26:16)
In it, the Holy Father reflects on the conversion of St. Paul, giving a brief lesson on prayer, and noting that to be a Christian, as Paul learned, is to be united to the Church that Jesus founded.
Saul asks: “Who are you, Lord?” (Acts 26:15) This question is decisive, and sooner or later all of us have to ask it. It is not enough to hear other people speak about Jesus; we need to speak to him ourselves, personally. Deep down, this is what prayer is all about. Prayer means talking directly with Jesus, even though our heart may still be confused and our mind full of doubts or even contempt for Christ and Christians. I pray that every young person, in the depths of his or her heart, will eventually ask the question: “Who are you, Lord?”
On the Church
The Lord immediately replies: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (ibid.).
With this answer, Jesus reveals to Saul a great mystery: that he sees himself as one with the Church, with Christians. Up to that point, Saul had seen nothing of Christ, but only the faithful whom he had cast into prison (cf. Acts 26:10) and in whose killing he had consented (ibid.). He had seen how Christians responded to evil with goodness, hatred with love, enduring injustice, violence, calumnies and persecutions for the name of Christ. In some way, without knowing it, Saul had already encountered Christ. He had encountered him in Christians!
How many times have we heard it said “Jesus yes, the Church no!”, as if one could be an alternative to the other. One cannot know Jesus if one does not know the Church. One cannot know Jesus apart from the brothers and sisters in his community. We cannot call ourselves fully Christian unless we experience faith’s ecclesial dimension.
Our own call
Pope Francis also took St. Paul’s experience to reflect on the call of God to each Christian. He noted how Jesus had undoubtedly been calling Saul to him for some time, but Saul had resisted.
Our Lord addresses that same gentle “reproach” to every young person who turns away from him: “How long will you flee from me? Why can’t you hear me calling you? I am waiting for you to come back to me.” There are times when we too say, like the prophet Jeremiah: “I will no longer think about him” (cf. Jer 20:9). Yet a fire burns in every person’s heart: even if we try to stifle it, we will not succeed, because it is stronger than we are.
By choosing Saul, someone who was persecuting him, “We see that, in God’s eyes, no one is lost,” the Pope continued. “Thanks to a personal encounter with him, we can always start over again. No young person is ever beyond the reach of God’s grace and mercy. Of no one can we say: He’s too far gone… It’s too late…”
Many young people passionately rebel, the Pope said, and we can imagine young Saul being “full of himself.” With Jesus’ revelation, Saul is blinded, but it is then that he begins to see.
His encounter with Christ changed his life; it made him feel truly small and tore down everything preventing him from truly coming to know himself. […]
Saint Therese of Lisieux, like so many other saints, loved to say that humility is truth. Nowadays we fill up our time, especially on social media, with any number of “stories,” often carefully constructed with backdrops, web cameras and special effects. More and more, we want to be in the spotlight, perfectly framed, ready to show our “friends” and “followers” an image of ourselves that does not reflect who we really are. Christ, the noonday sun, comes to enlighten us and to restore our authenticity, freeing us from all our masks. He shows us clearly who we are, for that is exactly how he loves us.
Use the passion of youth
Pope Francis reflected that Paul’s passion and strength are familiar to young people, but like Paul, we can be prevented from seeing things rightly.
You can risk finding yourselves lost in fighting meaningless and even violent battles. Sadly, the first victims will be yourselves and those closest to you. There is also the danger of fighting for causes that begin by upholding just values, but once carried to extremes, turn into destructive ideologies. How many young people today inspired, perhaps driven, by political or religious convictions, end up becoming instruments of violence and destruction in the lives of many others! Some, moving with ease in the digital world, use virtual reality and social networks as a new battlefield, unscrupulously employing the weapon of fake news to spread venom and to wipe out their adversaries.
When the Lord broke into Paul’s life, he did not suppress his personality or passionate zeal. Instead, he brought those gifts of his to full flower by making him a great herald of the Gospel to the very ends of the earth.
Let God trust you
Francis urged young people to listen to Christ’s voice, as Paul did.
Henceforth, Paul would be called the “apostle of the nations.” Paul, who had been a Pharisee, a scrupulous follower of the Law! Here we see yet another paradox: the Lord putting his trust in the very one who had persecuted him. Like Paul, each of us can hear a voice in our heart saying: “I trust you. I know your story and I lay hold of it, together with you. Even if you have often been against me, I choose you and make you my witness.” God’s ways of thinking can turn the worst persecutor into a great witness.
The Pope’s message continues with a series of exhortations, calling on young people: “Arise and bear witness!”