To speak of young people—their influence and their role in the world—is to speak of the adults who are their authorities and guides.
Anyone who feels responsible for the growth of secular or religious communities is aware of how precious and decisive dialogue with young people is. “It is often through the youngest that the Lord reveals what is best”, writes Saint Benedict in his Rule. The great abbot and educator is speaking to his monks. Thinking of the moments in which they must make important decisions, he urges them to not exclude the youngest monks in their deliberations. On the contrary, he decisively recommends that the youngest members be involved: from their freshness comes a healthy provocation for all, and their appeal must be received almost with veneration. Indeed, in them the voice of the Holy Spirit often resounds in a mysterious but real way.
Considering the situation of the Italian church of the 1950s and 1960s, Eugenia Scabini, one of the first students of Father Giussani at the Berchet high school in Milan, attributes to her former teacher the same positive gaze towards young people. She writes: “Giussani is a great interpreter of the young generation. Quickly coming into tune with young people, he creates a message that touches the young generation.” The photos of Elio Ciol (an Italian photographer) are rightly famous, portraying the Milanese priest while he conducts assemblies of attentive high school students. We see him writing down his most acute observations in a notebook. From his sincere attention to their questions and insights the touching force of his communication is reborn every time.
October 1st, 1968 marked the death of the Bavarian monk Romano Guardini. He dedicated his life to young people with all his energy, during the difficult period of German history that fell between the two world wars. At the end of the fifties, perhaps thinking of the many conversations he had with the university students who used to gather in the Rothenfels Castle, he writes: “With every man, existence always begins again as a new reality.” His deep soul was able to embrace vast historical and geographical horizons, and at the same time he felt the drama of the free decision of every single young person: “Every person has all the positive and negative possibilities that are characteristic of a beginning. From this derives the uncertainty of history.”
In fact, the natural openness that guides the young person towards a great promise of good does not always find the support it needs to start a journey in the right direction. In a novel titled Wild Swans, the Chinese writer Jung Chang tells the tragic experience of the Maoist dictatorship that she experienced firsthand. Along with many peers, Jung enlisted as a teenager in the Red Guards, full of enthusiasm and confidence in the ideals of the Revolution. Recalling that period many years later, she focused on a decisive episode in the history of Communist China: “a mammoth rally,” in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, “with over a million young participants.” Lin Bao, the then most popular party theorist, ignited their spirits with an argument full of passion and invited the endless expanse of young people who listened to him to leave school and go destroy what he called “the four olds defined as old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits.” It was about making room for the new. That day began the Cultural Revolution, a process that deeply wounded Chinese society, pitting son against father in almost every family of the era. “Following this obscure call, Red Guards all over China took to the streets, giving full vent to their vandalism, ignorance, and fanaticism. They raided people’s houses, smashed their antiques, tore up paintings and works of calligraphy. Bonfires were lit to consume books. Very soon nearly all treasures in private collections were destroyed.”
What strikes me from the examples above, more than the groups or masses of youths described, are the adults who stand before them. Young people emerge, and their contribution gains weight within human coexistence, in one sense or another, above all when they come into contact with adults who influence them. This applies, albeit in different ways, to the hidden spheres of monastic communities, to schools and universities, and to the open scenes of social and political life. These adults of influence are those who speak of Christ, class struggle, or a new world, in this way offering a hypothesis to the young people that gives meaning to human existence and to their personal lives. And it is exactly this discovery that inflames their hearts and has the strength to launch them towards the highest and most radical, or the most deranged endeavors.
Guardini himself predicted, with a dramatic sense of powerlessness, the yielding of thousands of young people to the pandering of Hitler’s racist propaganda. At the end of the Second World War, gazing at Germany devastated by this disastrous experience, Guardini said: “Our young people are the wounds, the greatest wounds from this great battle. For twelve years they, defenseless, were entrusted to teachers whose sole ambition was to impede their ability to think. Now we must try to give back to our youth the restlessness of the spirit. And it is this that will save them from nihilism.”
The expectation of truth, justice, and fulfillment that young people live is their most immediate strength. At the same time, it is also what renders them most vulnerable. The rhetoric that from time to time describes them as the protagonists of history, mechanically and bluntly making them that which brings novelty, too often turns out to be an instrument to recruit them for a project of power conceived by adults. Young people are certainly called to become, in the womb of society and of the church, an element of real newness. But they need a true authority; they need men who look at them without aiming for personal profit. They need adults who know how to introduce them to the mystery of their own freedom, offering an experience of truth that always opens again to the renewed voice of the Spirit.
(Photo above: a moment of the Feast of the Youth Center of Rome, entrusted to the priests of the Fraternity of St. Charles. Photo by Stefano Dal Pozzolo.)