Feb 8, 2007
Today’s society seems to have a negative perception of young people. In my dealings with adults, I have seen many people who stereotype teenagers in harmful ways. I have come to see two major generalizations that are often held about young people. However, I have also found hope in a letter to children, written twelve years ago by Pope John Paul II. This letter reaffirms the value and dignity of the youth and calls all people to grow in holiness.
Young people are often seen as being inadequate. Many employers are hesitant to hire teenagers because they are afraid they will be lazy, stupid, or incompetent. They think they will lack the skills, knowledge, or dedication for the job. This stereotype of teenagers as inferior human beings is harmful and degrading. Furthermore, it is false. While it is certainly true that some teenagers are lazy and inept, it is also true that there are many others who are just as talented, dedicated, and mature as most adults, and judging an entire group of people based on a few is destructive to the group as a whole.
The second phrase I often hear about young people is that they are “the leaders of tomorrow.” While this view is more hopeful than the previous one, it still does not do justice to the youth of the world. Labeling young people as the scientists, doctors, and businessmen of tomorrow fails to recognize their value today. It suggests that they have potential for greatness in the future, but do not yet possess what is necessary for greatness now. Despite its good intentions of encouraging and motivating young people, this perspective is actually detrimental to the way in which they are viewed. Unfortunately for the youth, many adults have bought into either this mentality or the previous one, both of which are harmful labels.
The late Pope John Paul II, however, was able to see beyond these stereotypes and generalizations and see deep into the heart of the youth. In his Letter to Children, written in December of 1994, he wisely reminds us that the call to holiness is a call to all people, young and old. He reminds us of the great dignity and worth of young people in their current state of life, not only in their potential as adults. Although his letter was specifically intended for small children, his message applies to all young people of today, including those in their teenage and young adult years.
Very little is known about Jesus' youth. But, as the Pope points out, the one story we do have of the young Jesus is the story of the Finding in the Temple, in which twelve-year-old Jesus taught the teachers in Jerusalem. Although his public ministry had not yet begun, he was already starting his Father's work and spreading the Gospel.
Clearly, the Pope places great value on the lives of young people. He puts emphasis on the way in which Jesus was able to carry out his Father's will as a child. And just as Jesus was able to make an impact on those around him as a child, all young people in the world today can make a difference in the lives of the people surrounding them. It is not necessary for them to try to do adult things; rather, they must simply strive to follow God’s will in their everyday lives, living out their youth in Christ.
In his letter, John Paul II commissions children to pray for world peace. It is to the youth, not the adults, that he entrusts this important task. Why? Because he recognizes the power of a child's prayers. Children give an example of how to pray: with simplicity and complete trust. When Jesus says "unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven," (Mt. 18:3) he is pointing to children as models for adults. All people are called to imitate the simplicity and trust found in the hearts of children, who, in their simple wisdom, realize that "love and harmony build peace," while "hatred and violence destroy it." The Pope invites everyone to follow the example of goodness and purity set by small children, who "instinctively turn away from hatred and are attracted by love."
The Pope then continues to ask children to pray to discover their vocations, and to follow them with love; to remember God’s love for them and to spread that love to the whole world. This is a message that applies to all people, and it is a good reminder to all young people of their inherent worth in God’s eyes. We do have immeasurable value - not only in the future, but now as well. We are capable of doing good things by following God’s will, and we even have the ability to set an example of holiness for the adults in our lives. These truths are so simple and yet so important in how adults look at young people and how young people view themselves. John Paul II saw this, and in his wisdom, he passed on this message to young people throughout the world. It is now time for the youth to respond to this calling and to live in the holiness for which we were made.