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Our youth: hope or disaster?

World Youth Day always evokes for me memories of a narrowly averted disaster. As a not-so-youthful seminarian teaching at the Ateneo de Manila High School back in 1995, I was tasked with shepherding my homeroom students during the overnight vigil and concluding Mass for the World Youth Day celebration in Manila. That final Mass at Luneta Park is now famous for having gathered the biggest crowd ever – more than five million people by some estimates – for a papal event. I recall how my students and I got stuck in the middle of the multitudes pressing forward to get a closer glimpse of the Pope. There were no crowd-control measures or attempts to regulate the human traffic in sight. I was gripped with fear of a stampede ensuing and my students being trampled underfoot by the rabble.

Once the Mass began, however, the crowds stopped surging toward the stage and settled down for a truly festive homage to the future blessed John Paul II. At day’s end, the spirit of the youth had prevailed, with everyone, young and old alike, rejuvenated in spirit.

Fast forward 15 years later, and now as a middle-aged priest, I recalled all these memories as I attended the recent World Youth Day vigil organized by the Archdiocese of Manila at the Ateneo de Manila University grounds. This gathering was meant to be a parallel event to the just-concluded World Youth Day in Madrid. Once again, my initial thoughts for this gathering were of disaster, but of a different kind: a disaster of indifference. I asked myself: Would our youth still be interested in such public displays of religious fervor? Given the fleeting attention span of the young, would an overnight vigil grab their fancy to the same degree as online entertainment or video games?

Again I was pleasantly surprised. I arrived at the vigil grounds where thousands of youth had gathered, undeterred by the furious rainstorm just a few hours earlier. And as I helped out in hearing confessions until way past midnight, I was impressed with the earnest attempts of the young to live good and meaningful lives.

These memories and events have prompted me to take stock of the fundamental attitudes we have regarding our youth. Sadly, it seems the youth are given little credit when it comes to the larger aspirations we have for our country and our world. We often view them with distrust and trepidation, a proverbial disaster waiting to happen.

For me, unfortunately, this shortchanging of the youth has become an occupational hazard of sorts.  As a college teacher, I often bewail the deterioration of reading and writing skills among the young. My colleagues and I constantly harp on how our students can be unoriginal and unimaginative, ready to pluck anything from the Internet and pass it off as their own work. In this age of abbreviated texting and “jejemonic” forms of expression, it is terribly easy to dismiss the current generation as inarticulate and indifferent to higher learning.

As a priest involved in social development, I usually find myself within circles where the youth are chastised for their lack of commitment to the ideals of justice and peace. I remember forums organized in the 1990s among non-government organizations to discuss the prospects for the “successor generation” in development work.  Many of these meetings would often start, to my dismay, with veterans in the NGO set ranting about how the young have not lived up to the ideals set by the pioneers in the field. Now I find myself ranting along the same lines, as I criticize the youth who are ready to join the exodus abroad or swell the ranks of call center workers rather than considering alternative careers.

And finally, as a pastor, I am often approached by the elderly who decry the lack of morals and the ungodly ways of the young. Admittedly, there are many times when it is tempting to sympathize with these complaints, to see the young as no longer interested in matters of the faith.

The problem with these attitudes is twofold.  First, in dismissing our youth, we inevitably end up glorifying our generation as a veritable “golden age” which the young can never equal. Second, and perhaps more seriously, such attitudes make it convenient for us to default on our obligations to the young. The youth may be our future, but for the moment they are also our charge. Whatever shortcomings they have are at least partly of our making, and the promise they hold are for us to foster.

One image from the recent World Youth Day in Madrid (prominently displayed in local tabloids) captures for me the unbridled hope that our youth bring. It is a picture of young pilgrims kneeling in prayer, even as they are being taunted by Spanish protesters objecting to the expense involved in the papal visit. Perhaps it is this steadfast commitment to the faith that led Pope Benedict XVI to describe the events in Madrid as a chance for young people “. . . to pray together and to renew their commitment to root their own lives in Christ, the Faithful Friend. [When they return home] they return there with the firm purpose of being a leaven in society by carrying the hope that is born of faith.”

Are the youth our hope or are they an impending disaster? The choice is ours to make.

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