One of the wonderful commentaries Pope Francis offered during the World Youth Day events in Brazil last week was his prescription of three attitudes that would help today’s young people build “a more just, united, and fraternal world.” Those three attitudes are hope, an ability to be surprised, and joy.
It struck me that this is a wonderful prescription for young people and for institutions serving and forming those young people. The Catholic Church and Catholic universities would be two such institutions.
In speaking of hope, Pope Francis urged, “Let us maintain a positive outlook on reality.” A negative outlook, which is so easy to pick up today from popular culture, politics, and the media, makes it more likely that young people will turn to the alternative “gods” provided by society, such as money, success, power, and pleasure. Young people need to remember that “God has the upper hand” in this world, and He will never allow us to be overcome by our difficulties, the Pope pointed out.
The texture of his remarks became even richer as he talked about the need to allow God to surprise us. “Let us trust God,” he prescribed. This is something Pope Francis does instinctively, for all the world to see. Trust is certainly hard to come by today, and sometimes it seems an authentic sense of surprise, or a willingness to be surprised, is also elusive. In our popular culture, we strain for surprise by wanting things to be more edgy and more extreme. I’ve heard our culture described as a “whatever” culture, where we seem bored by almost everything reality can offer us.
In a commentary about trends in journalism published in “Editor and Publisher” magazine a couple of decades ago, I quipped that “reality is being cancelled due to lack of interest.” The Freedom Forum, a journalism think tank, honored me by quoting me in its desk calendar for journalists the next year; I guess this cautionary note resonated with them. I do think our culture’s pursuit of alternative realities (video games, etc.) is a big part of the reason for the sharp decline of the market for serious journalism. The coverage of reality would strike people as more interesting if the reporters themselves were looking for genuine surprises–that is, facts and ideas that are not part of the conventional narrative. Titillation, outrage, and schadenfreude too often supplant healthy curiosity and surprise in the media today.
Just as hope can prompt us to look for God’s surprises, finding those surprises can lead us to joy, according to the Pope’s three-step prescription. Joy is another commodity often missing from our culture. Hauntingly, the words that come together in the term schadenfreude are German for “the joy of damage.” That’s a false joy! Without true joy and awe and a sense of great possibilities, we may not have enough energy to imagine, create, renew, and pursue a more just world where all other people can share the joy we’re experiencing.
Chesterton said (something like) this: The world has no shortage of wonders, but it does suffer from a shortage of wonder. I’ve heard it said that wonder should be everywhere on a college campus, where there are constantly new things to be learned, new people with whom to brainstorm, new mental, emotional, and spiritual connections to be made. Too often, cynicism or escapism or thrills of the moment substitute for joy…on college campuses and everywhere.
So I find this prescription from Pope Francis to be quite thought-provoking. All Christians and all New Evangelizers who care about our world and our future need to cultivate hope, surprise, and joy so as to energize young people, or even just to get their attention! I must do more thinking about how the institutional Church can embody this prescription better. How could a university embody it? Well, a big emphasis on world-class, interdisciplinary research, reflecting a mission to make a difference in the world and tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges, would help to generate hope; it would spring from a faith in that God who “has the upper hand” and wants the best for His beloved creatures. Research and an enthusiastic embrace of teaching and learning across a vast array of subject areas would foster a sense of surprise, and a vibrant spiritual life on campus would help the community of students and faculty to be attentive to the unseen, respectful of mystery, and ready for wonder. Also, a touch of sports, perhaps with a winning football team that was known as persistent and unpredictable–and, please God, capable of going all the way–would also help to generate joy.
All of these ingredients together could go far in enabling the next generation to pursue a more just, united, and fraternal world. That’s just one possible model for such an empowering campus. But it’s a microcosm worthy of exploration by those who welcome the Pope’s prescription for a positive outlook on reality.