Keep the Fire Burning: The Apostolic Exhortation ‘Christus Vivit’

Antonio Spadaro, SJ

 Antonio Spadaro, SJ / Church Life / Published Date:2 April 2019/Last Updated Date:20 April 2021

He is alive and wants you to be alive! This is how Pope Francis begins his new apostolic exhortation, which he signed on March 25, 2019. This exclamation summarizes the underlying meaning of Bergoglio’s text, whose title is Christus Vivit, Christ is alive. “Life,” “living,” “alive” are terms repeated throughout the text some 280 times, just as many times as the word “young,” which is the key to the exhortation. A life lived to the full: this is the heart of the thinking of Francis concerning young people. The pages turn over quickly, full of energy as though to shake us or literally exhort us to a full life.

Youth does not exist: young people do

In a book-length interview called God is Young[1] Francis specified that “youth does not exist. When we talk about youth, we are often unconsciously referring to myths about youth. I like to think that youth does not exist, only young people.”[2] Young people cannot be categorized as a separate caste.

Certainly, we can say with St. Paul VI that the age of youth “should not be considered the age of free passions, unavoidable failure, insuperable crises, decadent pessimism, harmful egoism; being young is a grace, it is a blessing.”[3] And it is a grace and a blessing given to all, for all of us are or have been young. Speaking of young people, then, means speaking of being human. Beyond all other considerations, the Church sees in them the instincts for happiness and fullness of those who are open to life.

La Civilta Cattolica

Christus Vivit is a link in a chain. It can certainly be read as a stand-alone text, but it is good to be clearly aware that the pope has “made his own” a complex and rich writing process that saw the involvement of hundreds of young people: the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the theme “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment,” which took place in Rome, October 3-28, 2018, and produced its own Final Document.[4] Speaking about young people means speaking of promises. Every young person is something of a prophet. The Synod was called to gather and interpret this prophecy. Christus Vivit is part of this hermeneutical work. The exhortation consists of nine chapters. Let us gather the keys to what Francis says as they appear in the text.

He is alive and wants you to be alive!

The opening chapter is a rapid series of close ups of some of the young people in the Bible. It is very readable as the pope is not making a great speech, but just gathering synthetically some characteristics, actions, deeds … sketches that can be used to compose a big picture. Thus, we see a God who inspires young people in their dreams (Joseph) and goes out to choose his elect among those whom others ignore (David). And we have sincere young people who do not sweeten the harshness of life (Gideon), insecure youngsters who know how to be courageous (Samuel), young people who feel lost before their responsibilities, but who know how to react wisely (Solomon) or reawaken the consciences of their people (Jeremiah), young people who are examples of generosity at times of disgrace (Ruth), or an anonymous girl who ended up in service to the wife of Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram who knew how to intelligently help her “master.”

The same sketching technique is used for the New Testament, where young people appear who are willing to undergo a profound change in their lives, to learn. The pope writes: “Young people are not meant to become discouraged; they are meant to dream great things, to seek vast horizons, to aim higher, to take on the world, to accept challenges and to offer the best of themselves to the building of something better” (No. 15).

There is even a boy who has “given up his youth” (No. 18). This is a strong expression and concerns a person who came to Jesus seeking “something more,” but who then goes away sadly. In this way, renouncing youthfulness is to live distractedly, asleep, “skimming the surface of life” (No. 19).

The second chapter fleshes out the figure of “youthfulness.” We are not just looking at intuitions about the phenomenology of youth. We have a face: The face of Jesus. The pope sees youthfulness there. Christ too is presented with some characteristics, and he is painted with some imagination.

Jesus is a young person immersed in relationships. Let us read the picture Francis draws referring to the caravan of families going up to Jerusalem: “Jesus was there, mingling with the others, joking with other young people, listing to the adults tell stories and sharing the joys and sorrows of the group. Indeed, the Greek word that Luke uses to describe the group – synodía – clearly evokes a larger ‘community on a journey’ of which the Holy Family is a part. Thanks to the trust of his parents, Jesus can move freely and learn to journey with others” (No. 29).

Here we see this particular way of being in the caravan, which the pope connects to the term “synod,” that is, the very ecclesial event that generated this apostolic exhortation. A synodal Church is one that knows how to be young and part of the world engaging in the world of relationships without pulling back into an elitist, separate place. It is a caravan: this is an image of the Church. It is also a way of living in the world with projects, “lest we create projects that isolate young people from their family and the larger community, or turn them into a select few, protected from all contamination. Rather, we need projects that can strengthen them, accompany them and impel them to encounter others, to engage in generous service, in mission” (No. 30).

Restlessness, key to holiness and mission of the Church

This is how the Church is called to be (cf. Nos. 34-42): free from sclerosis and from being unmoved, able to fight for justice, being humble. But Francis knows that many young people do not consider the Church to be significant for their lives. Indeed, sometimes they find the Church invasive and irritating (cf. No. 40). When the Church is defensive and does not listen, it transforms into a “museum” (No. 41). So, here is the question: How can the Church embrace the dreams of the young?

The pope does not remain at the abstract level, but traces some other images, short portraits of 12 young saints who are the natural continuation of the sketches of the biblical figures: from St. Sebastian in the third century to Blessed Chiara Badano who died in 1990. Looking at the dreams and interests of young people, the Church understands that its own identity is closely tied to its task, to its mission.

The pope finds in Mary the full image of the Church. But it is interesting to note he defines her as restless or “energetic” (No. 46). Restlessness is, in sum, the key to holiness and the mission of the Church.

The third chapter of the exhortation is dedicated to reading the situation of the young people today, and so precisely their restlessness. This reading has no intention of being exhaustive but makes ample reference to the Final Document of the Synod. Francis writes at the beginning of Christus Vivit: “In this way, my words will echo the myriad voices of believers the world over who made their opinions known to the Synod. Those young people who are not believers, yet wished to share their thoughts, also raised issues that led me to ask new questions” (No. 4).

The word of the pope, then, takes up and is even charged – almost electrically – by the voices of believers and non-believers. And he does so with sacral respect. In fact, he writes: “Each young person’s heart should thus be considered ‘holy ground,’ a bearer of seeds of divine life, before which we must ‘take off our shoes’ in order to draw near and enter more deeply into the Mystery” (No. 67).

From the synodal dynamic a method strongly emerges that is confirmed by the apostolic exhortation of Francis: before interpreting or making choices, you need to listen, you need to know the reality. You need to be made restless, or disturbed by reality. You cannot hear the young people if you do not walk with them along the ways of the world. Gathered in the synod hall, the pastors of the Church became aware that the Gospel message the Church treasures can only be transmitted by walking along the way with young people. Indeed, within the people of God they can even go before us. The icon that accompanied the reflections of the synod was that of the disciples of Emmaus. It is used again by Francis in his exhortation (cf. Nos. 156, 236, 292, 296). The entire third chapter of the exhortation confirms this method of journeying together.

The first thing that we note by listening is that the voices are too different to be confused into a single voice. Polyphony is indispensable. We cannot lump everything together as one and the same. As we said at the beginning: we cannot speak of “youth” in general. If we listen to them and walk with them, all the differences and diversities of their voices emerge.

Young people of a world in crisis

And yet despite their differences, in the title of one paragraph the pope does not hesitate to speak of “Young people of a world in crisis.” And crisis is the fruit of violence, persecution, abuse, addiction and exclusion of many kinds. The worst response to all this would be “anesthesia”: becoming so used to this colonization of the mind and the soul, losing sensitivity, remaining at the level of appearances and ignoring what is unwanted, poor, ugly and leftover.

The antidote exists: it consists in seeing things through eyes full of tears. These are the questions Francis asks: “Can I weep? Can I weep when I see a child who is starving, on drugs or on the street, homeless, abandoned, mistreated or exploited as a slave by society? Or is my weeping only the self-centered whining of those who cry because they want something else?” (No. 76).

The pope sees in young people “desires, hurts and longings” and recalls that the synod identified three themes of great importance (cf. Final Document, Nos. 21-31, and in the Exhortation, Nos. 86-102). He takes them up as they were written and quotes them at length. These are: the digital environment, migration and the drama of abuse.

The digital environment is understood not only as an instrument of communication, but also as the context for a widely digitalized culture. Francis is very clear in identifying the digital as a context of “social and political engagement and active citizenship” (No. 87). In this sense he touches a very hot topic in our society: a problem, but also a challenge to be embraced. We cannot pretend that the network does not exist and we have to take note that consent is formed through the digital sphere. Dissatisfaction, especially, is expressed there. How can we make the network a form of democratic participation without falling into the pitfalls of demagogy?

Migrations are understood as an “epitome of our time.” The phenomenon is described in its effects of suffering and abuse, as well as xenophobic sentiments. The Church today is called to play a prophetic role. This is certainly another burning theme.

The drama of abuse is articulated in its forms tied to power, to the economy, conscience and sexuality. Francis comments: “This dark cloud also challenges all young people who love Jesus Christ and his Church: they can be a source of great healing if they employ their great capacity to bring about renewal, to urge and demand consistent witness, to keep dreaming and coming up with new ideas” (No. 100).

A theme present throughout the exhortation is that of the defense of the rights of women and the need for reciprocity (Nos. 42 and 81) between men and women. The pope speaks of this in No. 42: “Instead, a living Church can react by being attentive to the legitimate claims of those women who seek greater justice and equality. A living Church can look back on history and acknowledge a fair share of male authoritarianism, domination, various forms of enslavement, abuse and sexist violence. With this outlook, she can support the call to respect women’s rights, and offer convinced support for greater reciprocity between males and females, while not agreeing with everything some feminist groups propose.”

We should note the move from the word “complementarity” to the word “reciprocity.” Complementarity seems more static and gives women one role and men another. In some way this crystalizes the relationships in a game of characterizations that do not respect the concrete life of a male-female couple. Christian revelation puts into discussion, then, a platonic concept of human nature that interprets difference as if it were destined to disappear into the unity of love from which, by fusion, a complete human being would arise. We note finally that in No. 245 Francis speaks of the lack of the example of liderazgo femenino, that is, of “leading female role models within the Church.”

The ‘great message’

The fourth chapter is the central one for the exhortation. It is dedicated to the “great message for all young people” and contains “three great truths that all of us need constantly to keep hearing” (No. 111).

The first is “God loves you.” This message is disarmingly simple. Yet this is the very point of the Christian message. “It makes no difference whether you have already heard it or not. I want to remind you of it. God loves you. Never doubt this, whatever may happen to you in life. At every moment, you are infinitely loved” (No. 112). Above all, God is not a hard disk. His memory is a “heart filled with tender compassion” (No. 115). Without this truth in Christianity everything falls to pieces. The pastoral work of Francis is striking for how it corrects the image of a false, dusty and heavy God. We have overloaded the image of God with ideas that distance him from his true image as lover of life.

The second “great truth” that Francis expresses in the fourth chapter of Christus Vivit is that “Christ, out of love, sacrificed himself completely in order to save you.” And the truth becomes an appeal for action: “Look to his cross, cling to him, let him save you” (No. 119). This love that goes as far as the cross overcomes all our fragilities and contradictions. Indeed, Christ writes his history of love with us through our “problems, frailties and flaws” (No. 120). Nothing and nobody are cast aside by the cross.

The third is that Jesus Christ is alive: ¡Él vive! He is not just a good example from the past. Bergoglio asks: “See Jesus as happy, overflowing with joy. Rejoice with him as with a friend who has triumphed. They killed him, the holy one, the just one, the innocent one, but he triumphed in the end. Evil does not have the last word. Nor will it have the last word in your life, for you have a friend who loves you and wants to triumph in you. Your Savior lives” (No. 126). We can see a triumph, a formidable exultation in these words, as though they were the direct fruit of the joy of resurrection. This is what converts, not just “an ethical choice or a lofty idea” (No. 129).

So here are the three great truths of the faith: “God loves you; Christ is your savior; he is alive” (No. 130).

Flying with your feet

In the fifth chapter of the exhortation the pope asks what changes about the way of youth when it is illuminated by the Gospel. What are the elements of this journey?

Francis proceeds by giving ideas for reflection, as if giving notes for spiritual exercises. His thought is not articulated like an academic treatise, but rather like a series of texts to feed the reader, giving indications for spiritual and existential meditation.

Dreams and choices. Youthfulness is understood as the age of dreams. But Bergoglio reflects on the fact that the meeting with the Lord makes people grow and dreams mature, which otherwise would remain abstract. Faith opens people to their responsibilities: this is the point. Restlessness is to be considered the motor of growth because it opens the heart and keeps it open (cf. No. 138), but then this condition no longer remains indeterminate: it must lead to the making of choices. When Francis sees a young man or woman seeking their way in life, he sees someone who wants to “fly on their feet.” This is a magnificent expression and should suffice. Yet the pope feels the need to be more precise: young people walk with two feet like all adults, but as opposed to adults whose feet are in parallel, they put them one in front of the other, ready to go. Speaking about young people means speaking about promises, which open the way to the journey of choices, that is, of life lived. Young people are crazy enough to fool themselves, but they also have the resources to heal the delusion that might follow (cf. No. 139) and so go forward.

Desire to live and experience. So, the journey of a young person tends toward the future and has the energy needed to counter the delusions of history. Perhaps the problem could be anxiety (cf. No. 142), which becomes an enemy in the moment we discover that the result of our action is not immediate and so we are afraid, uncertain and paralyzed. The pope puts himself in the situation of the young people who live this tension. He sees the risk that it might lead to dissatisfaction or unfettered irresponsibility. His message is a clear push forward, knowing that the Word of God invites us to live the present, not only to prepare a tomorrow (cf. No. 147).

Friendship. An important element in the life of a young person is friendship. The pope writes that, thanks to friends, the Lord helps us grow. The presence of friends at our side in difficult moments is a reflection of the affection of the Lord, his consolation and his gentle presence. Having friends teaches us to open ourselves up, to abandon our isolation, to share our lives (cf. No. 151). And this is the privileged form of a young person’s relationship with Christ: not an external intellectual adhesion, but a precious intimacy of friendship.

Growth and imagination. The enthusiasm of youth needs to be accompanied in its growth and maturation so as not to extinguish it due to a growing need for security and comfort. The ample openness and fascination do not need to be lost. The pope offers his own experience and confesses: “When I began my ministry as pope, the Lord broadened my horizons and granted me renewed youth” (No. 160). This phrase is a splendid insight into the life of the pope. This maturing that opens and widens the horizons becomes a stimulating prophecy for those who are near us (cf. No. 162).

Fraternity. Maturity is expressed through openness to others, a true form of “ecstasy,” the pope writes. And the recognition of radical fraternity. To witness to it, he quotes the bishops of a country that has experienced fratricidal war: Rwanda.

Commitment. In this sense the pope encourages aggregation that opens up to commitment, including in small groups. He speaks of “volunteer work” and “political charity,” “active citizenship” and “social solidarity.” These are all expressions of concrete commitment to build a new society. There is an expression that recurs frequently in the language of Bergoglio that summarizes the supreme form of commitment: “social friendship,” which is much more intense than the term “cohesion,” although that too is noble. This friendship is the fruit of the convergence of “shared energy” (No. 172).

Mission. Finally, Bergoglio clarifies that this commitment has neither boundaries nor limits. The Gospel is for all and not only for those who are near and more sensitive. Collaborating in the transformation of the world with energy, audacity and creativity is a task for all.

Branches in the sky and roots in the earth

The tone of the exhortation is decidedly tied to the energy to change the world. And to do so now, not just tomorrow or in the future. Yet Bergoglio spends an entire chapter on the need for roots. A future without a past flies away; youthfulness without history and tradition risks being pure ideology or myth or manipulation or superficiality: “The world has never benefitted, nor will it ever benefit, from a rupture between generations” (No. 191).

The Church is a canoe – this is what an auditor from the Samoan Islands said at the synod – where the elderly help to choose the direction by reading the position of the start, and young people, in dialogue with them, row with their strength. The pope remembered this intervention and proposed it anew in his exhortation Christus Vivit, concluding that we have to climb aboard the same boat together to build a better world (No. 201). For Francis, the young person is a prophet, but can only prophesy by listening to the dreams of those who go before them on the journey of life: dreams that they make on the basis of their long experience.

It is notable that in the context of the synod an event was organized to present the book “Sharing the Wisdom of Time.”[5] The pope participated and welcomed questions from the elderly and the young on the subject of intergenerational relationships. The volume itself was a collection of witnesses from the elderly of the whole world with whom the pope interacts, commentating or telling personal stories. Now the pope comes back to that volume to write: “In the book Sharing the Wisdom of Time I expressed some thoughts in the form of questions. ‘What do I ask of the elders among whom I count myself? I call us to be memory keepers. We grandfathers and grandmothers need to form a choir. I envision elders as a permanent choir of a great spiritual sanctuary, where prayers of supplication and songs of praise support the larger community that works and struggles in the field of life.’ It is a beautiful thing when ‘young men and maidens together, old men and children, praise the name of the Lord’” (No. 196).

The elderly build their dreams on the basis of memory, reminiscence, with images of experiences lived over the years. According to Francis, if the young people place their roots in the dreams of the elderly, then they can see the future, they can have visions that open their horizons. But if the elderly do not dream, the young people can no longer see the horizon clearly (cf. No. 193). The breakdown of intergenerational relationships would be a blow to history.

Don’t lose the fire

The seventh chapter is entirely dedicated to “pastoral care of the young,” that is, to educational action where the Church accompanies young people and fosters their being protagonists. The pope starts with the experience of young people who sometimes fail to find answers to their concerns, needs, problems and issues (cf. No. 202). Young people are asking to be greater protagonists.

Planning is not enough as a strategy and meetings are not enough as a model of action. Something else is needed. The pope uses the words “creativity,” “audacity,” “insight,” “ingenuity” (cf. Nos. 203-204). Francis sets out two major lines of action. These are outreach and engagement that attract new young people to the experience of the Lord; and growth, the development of a pathway of maturity for those who undergo this experience.

The pope asks that in pastoral work there not be the terrible risk that young people “lose the fire” (No. 212). This must not happen. “If the young grow up in a world in ashes, it will be hard for them to keep alive the flame of great dreams and projects. If they grow up in a desert devoid of meaning, where will they develop a desire to devote their lives to sowing seeds?” (No. 216).

And certainly the flame will be put out even when the experience of meeting with Christ converts into “indoctrination” (No. 214): “Many young people grow weary of our programs of doctrinal and spiritual formation, and at times demand a chance to be active participants in activities that benefit others” (No. 225).

The Gospel reduced to doctrine is a bland Gospel, incomprehensible, distant, separate from young people’s cultures and perhaps adapt only for an elite of “different” youth, who float alone without life and without being fertile. And so “we also uproot or choke any number of shoots trying to spring up in spite of their limitations” (No. 232).

The Church is not a bunker

A very important chapter is the one dedicated to pastoral work in educational institutions. The pope is very direct and harsh in stating that there are “some Catholic schools that seem to be structured only for the sake of self-preservation. Fear of change makes them entrenched and defensive before the dangers, real or imagined, that any change might bring” (No. 221).

The image Francis uses is very strong: “A school that becomes a ‘bunker,’ protecting its students from errors ‘from without,’ is a caricature of this tendency. Yet this image reflects, in a chilling way, what many young people experience when they graduate from certain educational institutions: an insurmountable disconnect between what they were taught and the world in which they live.”

What is at stake here is not just the content of the teaching, but the type of person we want to form. “The way they were instructed in religious and moral values did not prepare them to uphold those values in a world that holds them up to ridicule, nor did they learn ways of praying and practicing the faith that can be easily sustained amid the fast pace of today’s society.” Instead, one of the “greatest joys that any educator can have is to see a student turn into a strong, well-integrated person, a leader and someone prepared to give” (No. 221).

The road of research and questions helps form an adult personality, able to make choices with discernment and adhere to faith with full maturity. We could say that the model of the bunker is diametrically opposed to that of the field hospital, of which the pope has often spoken and indicates the space of a formation that helps heal the wounds of the world. The appeal of Francis is also very strong for a popular participation, to take on the role of leader.

Vocation and discernment

The last two chapters of the exhortation are dedicated to vocation and discernment. These are themes treated at length in the exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate. Here, Francis returns to them in light of the synodal experience.

At the beginning of the eighth chapter of Christus Vivit – dedicated to vocation – Francis writes that “in discerning your vocation, it is important to determine if you see in yourself the abilities needed to perform that specific service to society” (No. 255). Service to others is usually tied to two fundamental questions: formation of a family and work.

The family is the direct opposite of a vision of a disengaged, individualist life, prisoner of isolation and solitude. Francis insists greatly on how important it is to be able “to entrust yourself fully to another person in an exclusive and generous way” (No. 265).

Work is an integral part of a full and accomplished human life. Francis has often repeated this, putting together the three T’s in Spanish: tierra, techo y trabajo (land, housing and work). What comes to mind here is his talk to the so-called “popular movements” on November 5, 2016. Francis writes: “Although work may not help achieve their dreams, it is important for young adults to nurture a vision, learn how to work in a truly personal and life-giving way, and to continue to discern God’s call” (No. 268).

This is why politics must consider work as an important question. Today we discover new ways to save work at a greater speed than we discover new ways to use work (cf. No. 271). And as if this were not enough, we know well that the obsession with reducing costs can rapidly lead to the substitution of countless jobs with machines. 

Zapping and discernment

Life understood as a vocation, however, requires a space of interior silence. It requires leaving behind constant existential zapping or channel surfing. Francis had spoken about this in Gaudete et Exsultate (No. 167) and comes back to it here. In fact, today “we can navigate simultaneously on two or more screens and interact at the same time with two or three virtual scenarios.” Faced with existential multitasking, what is required is the wisdom of discernment. If this is lacking, “we can easily become prey to every passing trend” (No. 279). Silence and calm are needed for discernment. Francis offers a list of questions to be raised in this silence. “Do I know myself, quite apart from my illusions and emotions? Do I know what brings joy or sorrow to my heart? What are my strengths and weaknesses?” Then other questions follow: “How can I serve people better and prove most helpful to our world and to the Church? What is my real place in this world? What can I offer to society? Even more realistic questions then follow: Do I have the abilities needed to offer this kind of service? Could I develop those abilities?” (No. 285).

For Francis, discernment – it is good to recall – is not a wisdom for the educated, the elite, the enlightened. Discernment is a charism: “It requires no special abilities, nor is it only for the more intelligent or better educated. The Father readily reveals himself to the lowly (cf. Matt 11:25).” That is what he wrote in Gaudete et Exsultate (GE 170). But above all, “discernment is not a solipsistic self-analysis or a form of egotistical introspection, but an authentic process of leaving ourselves behind in order to approach the mystery of God, who helps us to carry out the mission to which he has called us, for the good of our brothers and sisters” (GE 175).

In Christus Vivit, Francis focuses on how to help people discern their own paths of life. The first thing to do, he writes, is to listen. And this listening implies three different areas of complementary sensitivity (cf. Nos. 292-294).

The first is the attention to the person with the time necessary and an unconditional listening. The second concerns the ability to grasp the right point in which one perceives the grace or temptation that is in action. This listening is oriented to recognizing the Good Spirit, but also the traps of the Evil One, his schemes and seductions. The third attention is profound listening about where the other person really wants to go, who he or she wants to be, beyond the shell of their sentiments.

Discernment is a process that requires accompaniment and presupposes liberty. There is no magic recipe. This is the great lesson that Francis offers young people today: help them recognize that their destiny and that of the world are in their hands. Their commitment, in the light of faith, is vocation and mission.


The world and the Church need enthusiasm and the responsibility of young people, and also their own intuitions and their own faith. Young people can run faster. This is why the pope concludes his exhortation with wisdom and humility when he writes: “And when you arrive where we have not yet reached, have the patience to wait for us” (No. 299).

[1] Pope Francis, God is Young: A Conversation, in collaboration with Thomas Leoncini, New York, Random House, 2018.

[2] Ibid., Part I.

[3] Paul VI, Allocution for the beatification of Nunzio Sulprizio, December 1, 1963.

[4] cf. Final Document of the Synod of Bishops on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment, in–faith-an.html.

[5] Pope Francis and Friends, Sharing the Wisdom of Time, Loyola Press, 2019.