Catholic youth: facing the challenges to faith (Pastoral Letter)

Catholic youth: facing the challenges to faith (Pastoral Letter)

Archbishop George Pell

"Test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from evil" (1 Thess 5:21). In the earliest letter of the New Testament St Paul gave this advice to the people of Thessalonica. It remains sound teaching for us all.

I want to speak to young people about the challenges before them, and to the whole Catholic community about our obligations to the young.

No generation in Australian history has been offered richer prizes for success or been forced to pay more for failure. No other generation has been so flattered or exploited. Greater physical comforts, more years of education, the marvels of modern health care, overseas travel for many and fabulous salaries for a few. These are real prizes, but not the whole picture.

Increasing family breakdown, homelessness, and abortion; youth suicide, growing environmental damage and easy access to soft and hard drugs, are also grim realities for many.

Unemployment also worsens every youth problem. All of us, governments, business, unions, and churches, have to recognise that youth unemployment is intolerably high. Generations today and tomorrow will pay an increasing price unless this situation is improved.

Conflicting pressures

To all young people battling with conflicting pressures, I repeat St Paul's urgings as you search for the truth. Look before you leap. Search out genuine love and service. Reject evil. Test the claims of the advertisers as carefully as you examine Christian claims. Choosing the good life is not just an optional extra.

Three hundred and fifty Catholic youth leaders gathered in two meetings to advise on this letter. Opinions varied, but many stressed the importance of a sense of purpose and direction. Young people, like their elders, need a goal, to know where they are heading. They need a person to follow, a cause to embrace, reasons to believe. Most importantly, they need to find among those of us who are older credible signs of faith and goodness, and caring communities of service.

The best the Catholic Church has to offer is the gift of faith. To know the love and forgiveness of the one true God offered to us by his Son Jesus Christ provides an unparalleled sense of security and makes a world of difference in everyday living and in eternity. God is invisible, but God is real.

The one true God is worshipped not just by Christians, but by Moslems and Jews as well. A pagan is someone unable or unwilling to believe in the one true God. The new pagans believe that the universe is a fluke, the product of blind chance, without purpose or meaning. Young people continue to reject this bleak absence of explanation.

A number of the youth leaders insisted that as well as knowing what the Church teaches, they needed clear and positive explanations why the Church holds its particular doctrines about goodness and faith. We have to be able to back up our claims, present reasons for our hope. Just as importantly the young need to see that we practise what we preach. Most young Catholics, even those who are not regular Mass-goers, pray regularly. Families, schools and parishes must recognise this and encourage all these signs of young people's openness and willingness to serve, rather than fastening only on negative stereotypes. Young people ask to be heard, respected and helped. This is their right.

As always some suggest that the way forward for the Church is to soften her demands, especially in the areas of life, family and sexuality. They argue that times have changed enormously since Christ lived nearly two thousand years ago, that the Church needs to be more accommodating and inclusive, not so strict and old-fashioned.

In one sense the Church has always been inclusive. We have always been a Church of sinners. However, true Christians recognise their sins and confidently ask God's forgiveness. They do not try to define sins out of existence.

All Christians believe that our basic teachings come from God. They have been understood and explained in different ways, sometimes better, sometimes less well. But the Church cannot compromise her basic beliefs, especially Christ's hard teachings. The cross is always one part of the story, necessary for growth and resurrection. To say otherwise would betray our tradition.

There is another reason why the Church cannot soften some of her teachings, seem to be more accommodating. It is not just that true love can be fierce and demanding, that young people are capable of answering a challenge. Experience also shows that some of the alternative life styles foisted on young people hurt rather than help, lead to despair rather than hope.


For example, young people are often encouraged to believe that sex is just for fun, that love and commitment depend on sexual performance, that "the problem" of pregnancy is solved by contraception and even abortion, both of which are presented as good and physically trouble free, and that if they do not feel this way about these things then something is wrong with them. Such illusions are presented as normal and common in such a way that disagreement provokes isolation and rejection.

These mistakes are endlessly repeated through videos, magazines, computer communications, and through advertising which is often geared more to the pockets of the young than to their well-being. The natural feelings of most young people are quite different, but they are eroded by constant propaganda and the fear of not belonging.

Many young people have been harmed by these messages and made bitter in their hurt.

To everyone of you who has heard these pagan voices and especially to those who wonder whether happiness lies in that direction, I say again: "Test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil." Listen to the promptings in your heart, for they come from God. You are right to suspect that these messages are lies which cannot bring happiness. They are a certainly a poor preparation for a good marriage and for bringing up good children. Do not be afraid to reject these lies because you are not alone in doing so. Many others believe as you do and the demanding Christian alternatives have stood the test of time. In the long run they bring peace and healing.

Consider carefully the evidence for good and evil, for happiness and misery in the society which surrounds you. Many of you in the preparatory meetings chose to consider the problem of youth suicide with the terrible suffering this brings. This problem is only the tip of an iceberg, hiding a mass of society's sins and lies and sickness.


Jesus Christ offers you the truth about this life and the next; his yoke is easy and his burden light (Mt 11:28). No matter how much you have been hurt, no matter how deep your doubts and confusion, he asks you to pray to him, the Son of the one true God, with your hopes and ambitions, your sorrows and fears. Jesus offers you the truth. He does not lie. He is the way, the truth and the life (Jn 14:6 ).

To those of you who know Christ and have accepted his cross, I ask you to join the struggle for good against evil; for service against selfishness; for faith and hope, rather than despair. You are not alone. Search out those of like mind and heart. Work together.

Do not underestimate the Catholic capacity to influence our fellow Australians. We are blessed by living in a democracy where everyone can work for majority acceptance. With the decline of religious prejudice, many outside are prepared to listen and to judge our words and deeds.

I know that some young Catholics, and many other young people, will not be able to accept all Christ's teachings and all that the Catholic Church offers.

To you I repeat St Paul's message. Do not simply follow the crowd. Do not blindly accept the propaganda which rains down on you. Ask Mary, the Mother of God, to help you. "Test everything; hold fast to what is good." If you do this, Christ will do the rest.

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