Rev. Rossano Sala, Sdb: From dreams to decisions
From dreams to decisions
accompanying young people on their vocational journey
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Lk 12:49). These are the words of the Lord Jesus who speaks of his imminent passion. He is referring to the burning bush aflame within him, to the passion of love received from his Father that he wishes to bring into the world of human beings.
It is, of course, the fire of love through which he himself feels continually regenerated. It lies in the depths of his soul through the presence of the Spirit who dwells in him and that reminds him of all the love he has experienced in the embrace of the Father.
Jesus’ mission in this world is to draw people towards the healing influence of this love from which they have clearly withdrawn. Therefore, if we ask ourselves what God’s revelation consists of, we must say that it is a living and purifying fire, a bush that burns without consuming, that ignites without destroying and that illuminates without dazzling. All of those who really come close to Jesus, even if they only touch the edge of his cloak (cf. Lk 8:44), they are enkindled and they glow, becoming one with him.
Dear young people, evangelisation is a task to which we baptised people are called, and it cannot be other than the light emanating from the fire that Jesus himself came to bring to earth. He enkindles us with his presence and his power, and only in this way can we become a fire that warms and illumines all those we meet. Anything else is harmful proselytising or sterile pastoral marketing, and it is theoretical conviction that does not transform existence, an absence of witness to an encounter that has never taken place.
It is clear that the Lord, who put his life on the line, is asking us to put our lives on the line. The baptism we have received is precisely this: “I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt 3:12). We are baptised in the Holy Spirit and fire. Let us never forget this! In the language of Christus Vivit: “Christ is alive and he wants you to be alive!” (ChV 1). He burns with love for everyone and no one is excluded. He wants you to be touched by this living fire so that you can touch others!
1. THE WAY: from dreams to decisions
It is good that the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Christus Vivit contains so many questions and that it is an open and engaging document. Each question draws the listeners towards shared responsibility. It seeks dialogue and communion, and it asks us to put ourselves on the line and to take a stand with our lives.
I believe that the beating heart and centre of Christus Vivit is Chapter 5. It starts with a formidable and truly challenging question: “What does it mean to live the years of our youth in the transforming light of the Gospel? (ChV 134). We can read the whole apostolic exhortation from the standpoint of this question by going back to the previous chapters and going forward to the following ones. When we go back we go towards the great proclamation to young people (chapter 4) and when we go forward we approach intergenerational relations (chapter 6).
After asking this question, Pope Francis ventures to propose to all young people an exciting, courageous and prophetic path of youthful spirituality in the contemporary world. It is enough to scroll through the titles of the different parts of this chapter to be aware of this. They are: a time of dreams and decisions, a thirst for life and experience, in friendship with Christ, growth in maturity, paths of fraternity, young and committed, and courageous missionaries.
As you can imagine, I am starting from here because we are talking about dreams and decisions (cf. ChV 136-143). We know that the situation nowadays makes it difficult to follow dreams and make decisions and one can easily fall into despair. It is also difficult to make decisions when so many different possibilities are available. However, it is important for us to keep dreams and decisions together. Romano Guardini, a great connoisseur of the hearts of young people, said that the specific task of youth is to reconcile idealism and practicality, imagination and reality. We must not lose our courageous spirit to aim for ideals that appear to be impossible. Together we must guarantee these ideals the possibility of finding a place in everyday life, through determination to really embody our most beautiful dreams:
Youth, as a phase in the development of the personality, is marked by dreams which gather momentum, by relationships which acquire more and more consistency and balance, by trials and experiments, and by choices which gradually build a life project. At this stage in life, the young are called to move forward without cutting themselves off from their roots, to build autonomy, but not in solitude (ChV 137).
Dreams must take on substance, which is to say, they need to come true. If youth is a dream that does not become reality, it fails through idealism, abstraction and the idolatry of principles. That is why it is necessary for dreams to become choices that are implemented along our life journey. It is so important to get involved in real life. This, we know, is a very powerful invitation that comes to us from Pope Francis:
Dear young people, make the most of these years of your youth. Don’t observe life from a balcony. Don’t confuse happiness with an armchair, or live your life behind a screen. Whatever you do, do not become the sorry sight of an abandoned vehicle! Don’t be parked cars, but dream freely and make good decisions. Take risks, even if it means making mistakes. Don’t go through life anaesthetized or approach the world like tourists. Make a ruckus! Cast out the fears that paralyze you, so that you don’t become young mummies. Live! Give yourselves over to the best of life! Open the door of the cage, go out and fly! Please, don’t take early retirement (ChV 143).
You have to go out, you have to take risks, you have to adopt the rationale of the ecstasy of life! There is only one certainty here and that is that the best defence is to be on the offensive! We must come out of ourselves so as not to die of narcissism. I believe, in this regard, that the concept of “ecstasy” is one of the most powerful in all of Christus Vivit: “How wonderful it would be to experience this ‘ecstasy’ of coming out of ourselves and seeking the good of others, even to the sacrifice of our lives” (ChV 163). This is a forceful idea that is then developed further:
When an encounter with God is called an “ecstasy”, it is because it takes us out of ourselves, lifts us up and overwhelms us with God’s love and beauty. Yet we can also experience ecstasy when we recognize in others their hidden beauty, their dignity and their grandeur as images of God and children of the Father. The Holy Spirit wants to make us come out of ourselves, to embrace others with love and to seek their good. That is why it is always better to live the faith together and to show our love by living in community and sharing with other young people our affection, our time, our faith and our troubles. The Church offers many different possibilities for living our faith in community, for everything is easier when we do it together (ChV 164).
2. Vocation: a question of “ecstasy”
This brings us to Chapter 8 of Christus Vivit which deals with the topic of vocations.
It starts with friendship, our special way of relating with Jesus, and then it goes on to deal with the different ways that we can be called, including through love and family and our work. Then it concludes by opening the door to “the vocation to special consecration”. Of course, as God calls whoever He wants, whenever He wants, wherever He wants and however He wants, no one can draw back from God’s utmost generosity and creativity.
Here I would like to tell you something about what is common to every vocational call. It is wonderfully stated in the paragraph entitled “Being there for others” (ChV 253-258), which in my opinion is the beating heart of this chapter 8.
Vocation is always for the good of others. God does not call us to create a group of favoured ones who are detached and isolated from others, perhaps believing themselves to be better than anybody else. We must create inclusion through our “missionary service to others” (ChV 253). It must be stressed that every vocation is a mission and every call sends us immediately towards others. It may seem strange to you, but this is exactly what it is. God’s call is for love for those who are not called! If I think of Don Bosco, founder of the Congregation to which I have the gift of belonging, I immediately ask myself why God called Don Bosco. The answer can only be that it was for love of the poorest and most abandoned young people. You see, God calls an individual for the many and not for oneself. That person is called to be at the service of the fullness of life of people who have not (yet) been called.
Pope Francis explicitly articulates this thought in various passages, and he emphasises the fact that our call is always a “missionary vocation” (just as our identity is always that of “missionary disciples”):
This missionary vocation thus has to do with service. For our life on earth reaches full stature when it becomes an offering. Here I would repeat that “the mission of being in the heart of the people is not just a part of my life or a badge I can take off; it is not an ‘extra’ or just another moment in life. Instead, it is something I cannot uproot from my being without destroying my very self. I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world”. It follows that every form of pastoral activity, formation and spirituality should be seen in the light of our Christian vocation (ChV 254).
I invite you to take a good look at the “ecstatic” perspective. My mission, or rather my going out of myself, my “moving outwards”, is not a superstructure of existence. It is at the heart of my identity. For this precise reason I do not “have” a mission, but “I am a mission”. Here too there is an exciting paradox because I am myself when I leave myself, when I interpret my identity not as a refuge, but as a space for meeting, dialogue and service. My existence is missionary. I do not exist for myself, but for others. The talents that are given to me are not for self-consumption, but for service. “I am a mission”, and for this reason “your own personal vocation does not consist only in the work you do, though that is an expression of it. Your vocation is something more: it is a path guiding your many efforts and actions towards service to others” (ChV 255).
Since a vocation is a more intimate part of me than I am to myself, it is not an opportunistic or pragmatic choice. It is the fruit of a friendly and loving dialogue with the Lord that gives full and definitive meaning to the many things that we do. Without the Lord, our actions risk becoming a terrain of dispersion, fragmentation and confusion. “It is not simply a matter of doing things, but of doing them with meaning and direction” (ChV 257). In this sense, vocation is a principle of unification in our lives, because it gives us the “grace of unity” that is so necessary and yet impossible to achieve through our own efforts alone:
In the end, it is a recognition of why I was made, why I am here on earth, and what the Lord’s plan is for my life. He will not show me every place, time and detail, since I will have to make my own prudent decisions about these. But he will show me a direction in life, for he is my Creator and I need to listen to his voice, so that, like clay in the hands of a potter, I can let myself be shaped and guided by him. Then I will become what I was meant to be, faithful to my own reality (ChV 256).
Pope Francis tells us again that “to respond to our vocation, we need to foster and develop all that we are. This has nothing to do with inventing ourselves or creating ourselves out of nothing. It has to do with finding our true selves in the light of God and letting our lives flourish and bear fruit (ChV 257). I am very convinced by the idea of vocation as the full flowering of our being. Sometimes we have the idea that vocation is a bit like a straitjacket that reduces our authenticity, as something that God imposes on us from the outside and that diminishes our individuality. Nothing could be more false! In reality it is exactly the opposite. God, our Creator and Father, has at heart the flourishing of his children. We are his glory, as men and women who live their existence to the full. He is happy when we are fully in bloom!
Here then is the very heart of vocation ‒ your “being for others”. This is because “your vocation inspires you to bring out the best in yourself for the glory of God and the good of others” (ChV 257). From here we can go towards God. Our love for God, our friendship with God, our care for our spiritual life, our active participation in the liturgy of the Church as a special place of encounter with God. In this sense, I would like to point out that the theme of friendship with God is one of the most beautiful transversal themes of Christus Vivit, and it is developed further in three parts of the document (150-157; 250-252; 287-290). We can go out towards others through family, work and special consecration. These are topics that are systematically developed in Chapter 8 of Christus Vivit that we do not have time to take up here in a systematic manner.
The important thing is to avoid philautia, that is, a pathological concentration on oneself. It is a typical defect of our times on all social and ecclesial levels. This is true for the Church as a whole, because when it concentrates on itself, it is not faithful to its own vocation. It applies to our Christian communities when they work for their own survival. It is true for young people who only see themselves on their own horizon and work selfishly for their own individual self-fulfilment. These young people have lost their youth!
3. Discernment: answering “the big questions”
Now let us move on to discernment. This is the key word of the entire synodal journey. It has engaged us from beginning to end and now continues to be a challenge for each one of us and for the Church at a time of renewal that is so difficult and yet so promising at all levels.
I was saying that there are very many questions in Christus Vivit, and that is really a good thing. Discernment, all things considered, is a process of answering very many questions, because “when it comes to discerning one’s vocation, it is necessary to ask oneself various questions”. What are these questions? Pope Francis ‒ who as a Jesuit comes from a tradition of the highest quality on the theme of discernment ‒ is very clear in this regard:
We should not start with wondering where we could make more money, or achieve greater recognition and social status. Nor even by asking what kind of work would be most pleasing to us. If we are not to go astray, we need a different starting point. We need to ask: 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? These questions immediately give rise to others: 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? (ChV 285).
This brings us to the real point. All these questions, in the end, refer to a single “big question” that summarises them all and provides the primary direction of our existence that, I repeat again, must be envisaged and implemented by going out, on mission and in service:
These questions should be centred less on ourselves and our own inclinations, but on others, so that our discernment leads us to see our life in relation to their lives. That is why I would remind you of the most important question of all. “So often in life, we waste time asking ourselves: ‘Who am I?’ You can keep asking, ‘Who am I?’ for the rest of your lives. But the real question is: ‘For whom am I?’”. Of course, you are for God. But he has decided that you should also be for others, and he has given you many qualities, inclinations, gifts and charisms that are not for you, but to share with those around you (ChV 286).
This passage is wonderful. It has accompanied us from the beginning of the synodal journey! Remember that this question was asked by Pope Francis exactly on Saturday 8 April 2017, on the occasion of the Prayer Vigil in preparation for World Youth Day. The Final Document of the Synod also gave it a prominent place in number 69, entitled “Life under the sign of mission”:
Pope Francis invites young people to view their lives within the horizon of mission: “So often in life, we waste time asking ourselves: ‘Who am I?’ You can keep asking, ‘Who am I?’ for the rest of your lives. But the real question is: ‘For whom am I?’” (Address during the Prayer Vigil in preparation for World Youth Day, Basilica of Saint Mary Major, 8 April 2017). This statement sheds a profound light on life choices, because it invites us to make them within the liberating horizon of self-giving. This is the only way to arrive at an authentic and lasting happiness! Indeed, “My mission of being in the heart of the people is not just a part of my life or a badge I can take off; it is not an ‘extra’ or just another moment in life. Instead, it is something I cannot uproot from my being without destroying my very self. I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 273).
The transition from “Who am I?” to “Who am I for” is absolutely essential. Without it we remain stuck in the traffic of systemic narcissism that in our times is bringing sadness and boredom to so many young people, along with a few flashes of fleeting and insignificant enjoyment.
This is the question that arises from a heart that walks with Jesus, the one who lived his existence as a pro-existence, as an existence at the service of others. This “big question” invites us to turn our gaze away from ourselves and to commit ourselves to the good of others. This is the royal way that the Lord has taught us; this is the way of the beatitudes; this is the way of the fullness of joy. Dear young people, let us stop asking ourselves, “what do I have to do to be happy?” and instead begin to ask ourselves, “Who do I have to make happy in order to be really happy?”.
You are being asked to recognise that nothing is given to you for you, but everything is given to you in view of it being a gift. This is how the Gospel works and this is its underlying principle: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Lk 6:38). It is the principle of full-scale generosity that is taught to us by God who is incapable of making petty calculations and seeking his own advantage. He always “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45). He will never be mean to anyone, but will always be generous to everyone.
In all of this, as you will have already grasped, there is a decisive link between generous service to others and vocational discernment. It is clear that discerning a vocation requires spaces of silence and solitude (cf. ChV 283) and also attentive willingness to listen (cf. ChV 284), but it should not be forgotten that the theme of diakonia, that is, of service to others, is a space of authentic discernment where I am called to take a decisive “position of service”, which is a feature of every authentic vocational process:
As in the miracle of Jesus, the bread and the fish provided by young people can multiply (cf. Jn 6:4-13). As in the parable, the small seeds sown by young people can yield a rich harvest (cf. Mt 13:23.31-32). All of this has its living source in the Eucharist, in which our bread and our wine are transformed to grant us eternal life. Young people face immense and difficult challenges. With faith in the risen Lord, they can confront them with creativity and hope, ever ready to be of service, like the servants at the wedding feast, who unknowingly cooperated in Jesus’ first miracle. They did nothing more than follow the order of his Mother: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). Mercy, creativity and hope make life grow (ChV 173).
You, young people of the Third Millennium, are being urged to accept the challenge of service: “strive for the common good, serve the poor, be protagonists of the revolution of charity and service, capable of resisting the pathologies of consumerism and superficial individualism (ChV 174).
4. Accompaniment: a critical need
We have spoken of dreams and decisions, of vocation and discernment. All of these things are of great importance and we cannot do them alone. Every dream can take shape if it is shared, every vocation is always also a convocation, and discernment is not only personal but also collective.
Jesus does not want us to go one by one as we follow in his footsteps, but he wants the Church to live in communion as the first and most important form of mission. I was very impressed by the fact that the young people, throughout the synodal journey, asked us to make the “prophecy of fellowship” shine out in the Church. If you read the Final Document of the October Synodal Assembly carefully, you will certainly be impressed by the emergence of the theme of “missionary synodality”, that is, the need to walk together, the ability to work as a team, to work together in order to educate and evangelise. Communion is the condition for mission!
In vocational discernment we also need to work as a team, we need to give and receive, and we need to get into the canoe of the Church, as a young man said at the Synod:
During the Synod, one of the young auditors from the Samoan Islands spoke of the Church as a canoe, in which the elderly help to keep on course by judging the position of the stars, while the young keep rowing, imagining what waits for them ahead. Let us steer clear of young people who think that adults represent a meaningless past, and those adults who always think they know how young people should act. Instead, let us all climb aboard the same canoe and together seek a better world, with the constantly renewed momentum of the Holy Spirit (ChV 201).
Pope Francis dedicates an entire chapter, the seventh, to the theme of intergenerational dialogue, that is, to the mutual help that young people and older people can give to each other. There is always giving and receiving in the Church, an exchange of gifts reverberating between the various generations.
This is especially true in the field of vocational discernment. This is also because there are many sources of confusion nowadays. Think only of the media bombardment that leads us to fragmentation and disintegration. That is why solitude and silence are important (cf. ChV 283). We also know that the Evil One is always at work to make us confuse good and evil, right and wrong and the sacred and the ungodly. Hence the importance of contemplation and prayer, and of willingness to listen (cf. ChV 284).
I think that individual young people would be both naive and arrogant if they thought that they could discern for themselves. They would actually be helpless and easily prey to subjective whims and huge errors. The tradition of the Church has always known that it is suicidal to think of discerning on one’s own. We must rather look for people with much human experience and much experience of God in order to be able to walk in the right direction.
Accompaniment and discernment go hand in hand because we must be accompanied in order to discern. This is true at the community level, group level and at the personal level (cf. Final Document nos. 95-100). We need to have a family environment in which each of us can experience a warm, friendly and caring atmosphere; we need to belong to groups that are capable of sharing apostolic initiatives in order to enable contemplative sensibilities; and finally we need adults who have not remained juvenile and have not been corrupted but are people “who through practice are able to distinguish between good and evil”. (cf. Heb 5:14).
Christus Vivit briefly takes up some points in this direction and makes a synthesis of many of the recommendations that have arisen on the synodal path. I think that at this point it is important to give the floor to you, young people, because you have been better than anyone else at giving an accurate profile of an adult mentor:
The young people themselves described to us the qualities they hope to find in a mentor, and they expressed this with much clarity. “The qualities of such a mentor include: being a faithful Christian who engages with the Church and the world; someone who constantly seeks holiness; someone who is a confidant without judging. Similarly, someone who actively listens to the needs of young people and responds in kind; someone deeply loving and self-aware; someone who recognizes his or her limits and knows the joys and sorrows of the spiritual journey. An especially important quality in mentors is the acknowledgement of their own humanity – the fact that they are human beings who make mistakes: not perfect people but forgiven sinners. Sometimes mentors are put on a pedestal, and when they fall, it may have a devastating impact on young people’s ability to continue to engage with the Church. Mentors should not lead young people as passive followers, but walk alongside them, allowing them to be active participants on the journey. They should respect the freedom that comes with a young person’s process of discernment and equip them with tools to do so well. A mentor should believe wholeheartedly in a young person’s ability to participate in the life of the Church. A mentor should therefore nurture the seeds of faith in young people, without expecting to immediately see the fruits of the work of the Holy Spirit. This role is not and cannot be limited to priests and consecrated life, but the laity should also be empowered to take on such a role. All such mentors should benefit from being well trained, and engage in ongoing formation” (ChV 246).
What can we add to these lucid courageous words? I would just like to mention the three sensitivities or attentions that Pope Francis speaks about regarding the people who are charged with listening to and accompanying young people in their vocational discernment (cf. ChV 291-298).
The first concerns the person. We must devote time to listening to an individual story, to a unique existence, and not yield to the temptation to standardise them. Every existence is a unique and unrepeatable love story that needs to be listened to carefully and impartially. The second is discernment. It is the delicate and precious work of those who know how to distinguish grace from temptation, and inspirations from God from the ambitions of the Evil One. It really takes a lot of attention because evil always presents itself in the form of something good, just as wolves disguise themselves as lambs in order to deceive the sheep. The third is motivation. It is the inclination of the heart, the ultimate purpose, the call of God that passes through the conscience of the person who is being accompanied. Here the other must be helped to recognise the fact that God is in his/her heart, and to respond to the profound challenge of his/her existence.
You will understand that this is not easy. At the very least, it takes a saint! We know that only holy companions have managed to guide those whom they accompanied on the way of holiness.
I would like to conclude by saying that, “in the end, good discernment is a path of freedom” (cf. ChV 295), and is clearly seen when the guide has to “disappear in order to let the other person follow the path he or she has discovered” (cf. ChV 296). This is the great sign of the holiness of the companion. It is one who knows how to leave the scene with elegance and without regrets, just like Eli with Samuel, who offers him the details of the answer to be given to God, but then goes back to sleep, leaving the field to the young man (cf. 1Sam 3:1-21); or like John the Baptist who is not afraid to step aside and point to Christ as the Lamb of God to follow (cf. Jn 1:29-37); or again like Philip who after having accompanied and baptised, has the courage to let the foreign traveller resume his journey full of joy (cf. Acts 8:26-40).
Certainly the point of reference for all of them was the first and greatest evangeliser: Jesus. He listened to the disciples on the road to Emmaus and inspired and warmed their hearts. Then, mysteriously, he gently stepped aside and left them to make their own decisions and follow their dreams:
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread (Lk 24:28-35).
Rev. Rossano Sala sdb
Lecturer in Youth Ministry at the Pontifical Salesian University
Director of the Journal “Note di pastorale giovanile”
Special Secretary at the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops