TALLINN, Estonia – As the Catholic Church prepares for a summit of bishops in October focusing on youth and vocations within the wider context of clerical sex abuse scandals around the world, Pope Francis called for the Church to be converted and to answer young people’s call for change.
“When we adults refuse to acknowledge some evident reality, you tell us frankly: ‘Can’t you see this?’ Some of you who are a bit more forthright might even say to us: ‘Don’t you see that nobody is listening to you any more, or believes what you have to say?’” the pope acknowledged during an ecumenical meeting with youth in Tallin, Estonia.
“We ourselves need to be converted,” Francis added, “we have to realize that in order to stand by your side we need to change many situations that, in the end, put you off.”
Pope Francis is currently on the last stop of is four-day pastoral visit to the Baltic States, Sep. 22-25. Until now, the pope’s speeches had focused on calling the local faithful to openness and mercy, but on Tuesday he mentioned the sex abuse crisis for the first time on the trip.
Young people “are upset by sexual and economic scandals that do not meet with clear condemnation, by our unpreparedness to really appreciate the lives and sensibilities of the young, and simply by the passive role we assign them. These are just a few of your complaints,” the pope said.
“We want to respond to them; as you yourselves put it, we want to be a ‘transparent, welcoming, honest, inviting, communicative, accessible, joyful and interactive community’,” he added.
Francis met with youth of varying denominations and ethnicities in the Lutheran Charles’ Church in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia. He was joined by the Evangelical Lutheran Archbishop of Estonia, Urmas Viilma, the President of the Estonian Council of Churches, Archbishop Andres Põder and the Apostolic Administrator in Estonia, Bishop Philippe Jourdan. Representatives from other Christian communities in the country also attended.
At the ecumenical event, three young people – one Catholic, one Estonian Orthodox and one Lutheran – relayed their personal faith stories, of finding faith and losing it, of feeling lost and being found.
The testimonies were interrupted by songs sung by local choirs. Music is an important form of expression in the Baltic States and the second song was Russian, dedicated to the small Russian minority that still exists in the country. These countries, located in the northern peripheries of both East and West have historically been home to numerous faiths, traditions and ethnic groups.
“If we try to see ourselves as pilgrims journeying together, we will learn how to entrust our heart to our travelling companions without fear and distrust, looking only to what we all truly seek: peace in the presence of the one God,” the pope said in his speech. “This journey must not just be done with believers, but with everyone. Everyone has something to say to us.”
A real Christian community, he added off the cuff, “does not do proselytism” but instead listens, accompanies and walks without ever imposing its beliefs.
Ahead of a bishop’s summit this fall dedicated to youth, the Vatican hosted an event where young people were asked about their questions and concerns regarding the Catholic faith and the document that resulted from the gathering will be part of the work material used at the Synod of Bishops. In his speech, Francis quoted the document where it cited young people’s thirst for a guide to accompany them without judgement and open to all questions.
“Today, I am here to tell you that we want to mourn with you when you mourn, to accompany and support you, to share in your joys, and to help you to be followers of the Lord,” the pope said.
Speaking to the group, he recognized that for many young people growing up today the concept of love may seem like a thing of the past. The growing number of divorces, the sense abandonment generated by having to be uprooted and look for work elsewhere, the pope said, contribute to this feeling.
The Baltic states have experienced a significant diaspora of its youth to better opportunities in Europe, which coupled with lowering nativity rates and longer life spans threatens these counties’ very survival.
“It might seem that love is dead, but we know that it is not, and that we have a word to say, a message to bring, with few words and many actions. For you are a generation of images and action, more than speculation and theory,” Francis said. “And that is how Jesus likes it, because he went about doing good, and when dying he preferred the striking message of the cross over mere words.”
The pope concluded his speech by insisting that “love is not dead,” and inviting Christians to not become “a museum of memories,” but rather go out and spread the Gospel. “The Lord surprises us because life always surprises us,” he said. “Let’s go forward toward these surprises.”