In his opening speech for the March 19 session, Pope Francis told youth that “your contribution is indispensable” for the preparation of the October synod gathering.
Too often young people are talked about without being spoken to, he said, stressing the importance of having a “face to face” meeting where they can share their thoughts and desires.
“It's not enough to exchange some messages or share some nice photos,” he said, adding that “youth must be taken seriously!” Too often youth are left alone, he said, and cautioned that in the Church, “it must never be like this.”
“We need to regain the enthusiasm of the faith and of the flavor of the search. We need to find again in the Lord the strength to recover from failures, to go forward, to strengthen confidence in the future.”
“We need to dare [to take] new paths, even if it involves risks,” he said, adding that risk is necessary because “love knows how to risk; without risk a young person grows old, and it also makes the Church grow old.”
Because of this, “we need you young people, living stones of a Church with a young face, but not using makeup: not artificially rejuvenated, but revived from within,” he said, explaining that the purpose of the synod is to accompany youth.
“Be assured: God trusts you, he loves you and he calls you,” Francis said, saying the Church, in the synod, must learn to have “new ways of presence and closeness.”
After his opening address, Francis heard testimonies from five young people: Tendai Karombo from Zimbabwe, Nicholas Lopez from the US, Cao Huu Minh Tri from Vietnam, Annelien Boon from Belgium, and Angela Markas from Australia.
The Pope was then asked questions from five youth, one of whom was a young Nigerian woman named Blessing Okoedion who was brought to Italy four years ago as a victim of human trafficking.
After suffering the “hell” of forced prostitution, she was finally able to escape and find healing with an order of religious sisters. In her question to the Pope, Okoedion said many of her clients were Catholics, and asked how youth can be made aware of the problem of trafficking, and how to fight the “sick” mentality that reduces women to being the property of men.
In his response, the pope said human trafficking is “a crime against humanity” which is ultimately “born from a sick mentality.”
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“The woman is exploited,” he said, noting that “today there is no feminism that has been able to take this out of the unconsciousness” in societal thought. “It's a sickness of mentality, it's a sickness of social action, it's a crime against humanity.”
Pope Francis then asked forgiveness “for all the Catholics who commit this criminal act.”
“I think of the disgust these young women must feel when these men make them do anything,” he said. What women endure is “unbelievable,” he said, and called the practice a form of “slavery.”
In response to a question posed by Argentine youth Maria de la Macarena Segui, who asked about education initiatives and what youth can do to make their encounter with the Lord last over time, the pope stressed the need for an integral education.
Francis said there is need for educational initiatives that follow a “head, heart, hands” model, and which “harmonize” these three aspects into a solid foundation for the person that takes intellectual and charitable formation and turns them into action.
He also responded to a question posed by Ukrainian seminarian Ylian Vendzilovych, who asked how young priests should act amid the “complex realities” of modern society, and questioned how someone preparing for ordination can differentiate between what is good and what is wrong in society.