ROME — Pope Francis urged young people to lead the church’s future Saturday, even as he voiced doubts that he’d be around much longer to see it.
The 80-year-old pope referred to his own mortality twice in the span of a few minutes during a vigil service to rally enthusiasm for the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day, to be held in Panama in 2019.
“I don’t know if it will be me, but the pope will be in Panama!” he told the crowd gathered at the St. Mary Major basilica.
A few minutes earlier, he drew gasps from the pews when he teased: “At my age, we (old people) are about to pass away.”
Sensing their pained reaction, he added: “Who guarantees life? No one. At your age, you have the future ahead of you.”
Francis is known for his casual, self-deprecating remarks and has said repeatedly he didn’t expect to be pope for very long. Early on in his four-year papacy he predicted two to five years would do it. He has also not ruled out the possibility of resigning like his predecessor, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, did.
At the same time, there’s nothing indicating that Francis is slowing down.
Later this month, he begins the first of his 2017 foreign travels that are expected to bring him to Egypt, Portugal, Colombia, India, Bangladesh and perhaps South Sudan. He is also gearing up for the next big meeting of the world’s bishops this fall, dedicated to young people.
The Vatican has solicited direct input from young people to inform its work and participate in the synod. Francis took that request further Saturday, saying he wanted to involve not just dedicated Catholics but all young people, atheists included.
“The future is in your hands,” he said.
In his April 8 speech, the pope noted how the prayer vigil marked the “double-beginning” of the 2018 Synod of Bishops on “Faith, Young People and the Discernment of Vocation,” as well as the upcoming 2019 global World Youth Day encounter in Panama.
The journey of WYD is being taken from “Krakow to Panama, and in the middle the synod,” he said, explaining that the synod is an event “from which no young person should feel excluded.
“We are holding this synod for Catholic youth, but also youth who come from Catholic associations, so then it’s stronger? No. This synod is a synod for all youth!
“Young people are the protagonists,” he said, explaining that this includes agnostics, those who are far from the Church or struggle with their faith, and even those who consider themselves to be atheists.
The synod, he stressed, “is a synod for youth, and we all want to hear you. Every young person has something to say to others, has something to say to adults, to priests, to sisters, to bishops and to the pope! We all need to listen to you.”
Recalling what he told youth during the 2016 International WYD in Krakow, Francis said that “it’s terrible to see a young person ready to go into retirement at the age of 20. It’s terrible. And it’s terrible to see young people who spend their lives on their couch.”
What is needed instead are young people who walk, who go out on the street and “move forward beside others, but looking toward the future.”
He pointed to the Gospel already read during the encounter, which recounted how Mary “went in haste” to her cousin Elizabeth after learning that she was pregnant in her old age.
Like Mary, “the world today needs young people that go with haste, who don’t get tired of going with haste. Of young people who have that vocation of feeling that for them, life offers a mission,” he said.
As he frequently has in the past, the pope emphasized the importance of experiencing life as a journey, saying that the world and the Church need youth who participate in this journey and who are engaged in the process.
“But what drama there is in the world today,” he said, noting that unfortunately, today “young people are often discarded; they don’t have work, they aren’t given an ideal for their lives, they don’t have education, they lack integration. Many are forced to flee and live as refugees in in other lands.
“It’s hard to say this, but often times young people are treated as garbage,” he said, explaining that the goal of the synod is to show the world that “young people are here. We are going to Panama to say that we are here, on a journey, we don’t want to be garbage, we have value to give.”
However, participating in the journey involves risks and the possibility of making mistakes, he said, but cautioned that if a young person doesn’t take risks, “they have grown old. We must take risks.”
Catholic News Agency also contributed to this report.