Maybe it’s time for the meek to inherit the earth. Or, maybe, a once-meek subset of the population simply won’t be shushed anymore. I’m talking about young people. From Malala Yousafzai to the Parkland teens to Greta Thunberg to student protesters around the globe, we’re seeing twenty-somethings diving into politics and adolescents wrestling with grown-up problems. Adults don’t have a corner on leadership anymore. Considering where that’s brought us, it may be welcome news.
The founder of the World Economic Forum recently recommended that our societies “move away from a narrative of production and consumption to one of sharing and caring.” Sharing and caring? Is the financial sector getting religion? The same spokesperson suggested that young people are the best guides down this novel path. A prophet once said the same thing: the child shall lead them.
Still, it’s more common for grown-ups not to see teenagers, to view them as inconsequential or as problems to be neutralized. Yet in his apostolic exhortation Christ Is Alive (Christus Vivit), Pope Francis warns that Jesus had no use for adults who view the young as factors to be maintained or controlled. Francis observes that we tend to quarantine adolescents in programs or youth groups, not vitally connecting them with the rest of us. Summoned by Jesus to be like children, we can’t do without their freshness and idealism. We may be the roots, but young people are our branches.
Teenagers are famously critical of the way older folks do things. Their criticism may serve as a source of humility and truth for the rest of us. Attending to their critique can even prevent institutional corruption, the pope says. Prophecy confirms that the dreams of the young nudge the world forward. What young folks desire most from the church is a community that listens to them and doesn’t merely attempt to solve their problems or condemn their perspective.
The upcoming generation isn’t just the future, but is in fact the present, the “now” of God, as Christus Vivit declares. In this light, we might treat the hearts of children as holy ground. Are we prepared to take off our shoes and tread softly into their fragile reality: a planet in crisis, a Church unmasked by scandal, a nation politically fractured, global violence, mass displacement, a grossly imbalanced economy, and a deeply uncertain path through this dubious inheritance? All of this on top of the normal anxieties of youth: sexual awakening and body issues, bullying and peer pressure, troubles in family life, and the search for purpose and direction.
Society must learn to be the caring mother, Pope Francis insists. At the same time, grown-ups must embrace the vocation to be like children: entertaining disturbing questions, open to new perceptions, willing to fall and fail and be wrong sometimes. Our young people have awakened to the fact that they’re the canaries in the coal mine. Their urgent song seeks to rouse the rest of us to the danger they, and we, are presently in. The meek would very much like to inherit the earth. Will there be anything left to inherit when we’re done with it?
Alice Camille is the author of For Everything There Is a Season: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, and other titles available at www.alicecamille.com.