As we were getting ready for the big 1985 conference there was some dispute. Some looked forward to a gathering with emphasis on prayer and preaching in the familiar mode – where drama, dance, etc. were out of place; others wanted it to be a colourful celebration of today’s youth who have experienced freedom in Christ. Eventually, ‘Jesus Youth 85’ happened not in the ‘regular retreat style’, but with more exuberant youthful energy, and enough space to showcase the culture, interests and talents of the youth.

One oft-repeated quote during those discussions was from St. Irenaeus, ‘Man fully alive is the glory of God’. Our mission to lead youth to a ‘life in its fullness’ (Jn 10:10) is also linked to their self-discovery and the use of their talents to serve others. From this came forth the vision of Jesus Youth as a place that offers abundant encouragement for this. This in turn was the foundation for Jesus Youth ministries.

CALL TO ABUNDANT LIFE

Jesus invites us to a life in its fullness. Its foundation is surely the freedom that Christ gives. But is this fullness limited to my inner peace and joy? Shouldn’t it bear vibrant fruit in the day to day life – at home, at work and in the wider society? Perhaps it is here that a Christian’s awareness of and active involvement with culture becomes so important. This was also a key discussion in the Second Vatican Council. ‘Man comes to a true and full humanity only through culture, which is through the cultivation of the goods and values of nature’ (Gaudium et Spes, 53).

Here, I remember my chat with a priest and head of a Catholic institution, ‘Every year I arrange the best possible retreat for my students and professors. Once I took the whole college to a retreat centre, bearing all expenses! Now I am a bit disheartened. I wonder if it is does any good.’ I felt so sad for that enthusiastic priest, but I didn’t have the confidence to share and convince him of the big lesson I had learned through my journeying in Jesus Youth – personal evangelisation leading to cultural mission.

Leading people to a Christ encounter is indeed the very first step, but if that is the last step of evangelisation for some people, it will be like the house where seven evil spirits returned (Mt 12:45). In our Jesus Youth approach, a person after a Christ encounter enters into a community that shares the life in Christ, where one’s talents and interests are nurtured imbued with a missionary enthusiasm. This ‘missionary approach with a cultural orientation’ gives enough focus to one’s life situations, relationships and talents.  As Pope Francis comments, ‘There is a kind of Christianity made up of devotions reflecting an individual and sentimental faith life . . . Some people promote these expressions while not being in the least concerned with the advancement of society or the formation of the laity, and in certain cases they do so in order to obtain economic benefits or some power over others’ (The Joy of the Gospel, 70). A spirituality that attends to lifestyle and culture is in need here.

EVANGELISING CULTURES

‘Culture’ is a special word. It brings to mind different images. It has mainly to do with the society and lifestyles there. But where in Jesus Youth is this cultural orientation?

‘Why  not visit an old-age home,’ and the whole class had a memorable evening there; a film festival with screening of four movies, followed up with discussions; an interesting exhibition with a variety of stalls; a two-week long drama workshop for teenagers; a day-long seminar discussing values in movies; a discussion on ecological issues; a music band; a cricket match after the group meeting; a gathering to try out cookery skills; Onam celebration with songs, lights and dishes, these and much more by different Jesus Youth groups truly manifest their keen interest in cultural interventions, but with some difference.

I started this reflection referring to a conflict in views early in the movement. Here, a question may be raised – why even exemplary Christians are averse to a spirituality that turns to society and culture? Why do some people think that connecting with wider society is dangerous? Surely, we see the scripture verses and saying of saints hinting that the world and its ways were dangerous and so to give it up completely. Jesus has only praises for the Baptist who went to the wilderness embracing this spirituality. So then, how do we reconcile between a style of complete forgoing of the world and the contrary approach of loving cultural matters, sowing the seeds of the Gospel there, and making society all the more beautiful?

With much respect we look at the charism of those who give up the world to enter into ascetic self-denial. But many of us, like those in Jesus Youth, have accepted a call to renew the life of today’s youth and, like Jesus, go out in search of people, meeting them wherever they are. We have a vocation to see the beauty of the world that God has created and change it specially, like leaven from the inside.

But then, isn’t it a dangerous path to traverse the likes and styles of ordinary worldly ones and yet become holy? Sure, such a ‘balancing’ is not easy. But fortunately, in a movement like Jesus Youth there are some very good support systems. Here every person gets opportunities to equip oneself by getting rooted in the life of the Trinity, to help one develop new attitudes and personal styles, by being part of active friendship groups and getting formed to withstand the pressures of the world. And finally one becomes part of various ministries to play one’s role in building a ‘new heaven and new earth’.

Regarding this, words of St Pope Paul VI in 1965 is quite relevant even today, ‘The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time… Therefore every effort must be made to ensure a full evangelisation of culture (Evangelii Nuntianti, 20).


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