The Clear Message of Christus Vivit

On the feast of the Annunciation, Pope Francis signed his most recent Apostolic Exhortation, Christus Vivit, a document addressed to young people and to the entire people of God. It is a response to the recent Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. The pope explains that he let himself “be inspired by the wealth of reflections and conversations that emerged from last year’s Synod,” (Christus Vivit, §4) and provides a summary of these proposals, but also offers a continuation of his vision for the kerygmatic[1] evangelization of the Church that he provides in his previous exhortations.[2]

Particularly interesting is the title of this exhortation. While in previous exhortations Pope Francis has used the theme of joy as his starting place, in this letter, he gives the reason for our joy: “Christ is alive!” (CV, §1). With this title, he exemplifies his call for kerygmatic evangelization contained in the previous documents. The title of the document, Christus Vivit, highlights Pope Francis’s desire to have a Christocentric focus with his audience. Throughout the exhortation, he constantly invites the young to an encounter and friendship with Jesus. As the Holy Father pastorally states, “No matter how much you live the experiences of these years of your youth, you will never know their deepest and fullest meaning unless you encounter each day your best friend, the friend who is Jesus” (CV, §150).

Pope Francis’s artful use of Scripture throughout Christus Vivit provides a model of kerygmatic proclamation. In a similar fashion to the Catechism, and following the kerygmatic model, the Holy Father weaves quotations from Scripture seamlessly into his counsel. These quotations allow the gospel to speak for itself and serve as the message that he desires to share with his audience. They are not a prooftext of his argument; rather they serve to accentuate the beauty of the Word of God and its enduring application to the youth of this generation.

In the first two chapters, the pope presents the witness of youths whom God called throughout salvation history—with Jesus (and Mary) center-stage—to show how often the Scriptures speak of young people. With this he follows his own advice that,

The inexhaustible spiritual riches preserved by the Church in the witness of her saints and the teaching of the great spiritual masters . . . we cannot fail to invite young people to drink from these wellsprings of new life. We have no right to deprive them of this great good.

Therefore, throughout the document he brings up the examples of Saint Sebastian, Saint Joan of Arc, and Saint Therese of the Child Jesus to encourage an encounter with Christ (CV, §229). By evoking examples from salvation history, including the lives of saints, Pope Francis is employing the kerygmatic model, which reclaims the wealth of the Christian tradition to illustrate the Good News that he is proclaiming.

Pope Francis uses Chapter 4 of Christus Vivit as an opportunity to offer his own proclamation of the kerygma to young people in an exposition of “three great truths”: “God loves you; Christ is your Savior; he is alive” (CV, §130). In this central chapter, the Holy Father provides a model for “incarnating the kerygma in the language of today’s youth” (CV, §211). When describing God’s love for each person, he quotes a homily from World Youth Day in Krakow, where he said, “Trust the memory of God: his memory is not a ‘hard disk’ that ‘saves’ and ‘archives’ all our data. His memory is a heart filled with tender compassion, one that finds joy in ‘deleting’ from us every trace of evil” (CV, §115). Here he uses the language of technology to describe God’s love to digital natives and takes a concept understood by his audience to the deeper and more profound level of the gospel.

In describing the salvation Jesus offers, he points to the beauty of the Christian message, “How valuable must you be, if you were redeemed by the precious blood of Christ! Dear young people, ‘You are priceless! You are not up for sale!’” (CV, §122). He then provides concrete imagery to captivate the minds of young people, “Keep your eyes fixed on the outstretched arms of Christ crucified” (CV, §123). By presenting this image he aims at, “An approach to reality that privileges images over listening and reading,” because it best influences, “the way people learn and the development of their critical sense” (CV, §86).

However, the central emphasis of the document is also reflected in its title, “Christ is alive!” (CV, §124). The pope presents with joy the central truth of the Christian faith: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and offers us eternal life. True to the kerygma proclamation, Pope Francis states, “Every other solution will prove inadequate and temporary . . . with Jesus, on the other hand, our hearts experience a security that is firmly rooted and enduring” (CV, §128). The encounter and relationship with the risen Lord also becomes the sustaining force of the entire Christian life and the starting point of evangelization. Here, he again relies upon a favorite quotation from his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (CV, §129; cf. Deus Caritas Est, §1). This theme of encounter with the risen Lord repeats itself throughout the remainder of this Exhortation.

He closes this chapter with a reflection on the Holy Spirit, who helps us experience the message of the kerygma and live it more fully. With the prompting of the Holy Spirit, we can fall in love with God and this relationship will affect literally everything. “It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning . . . what you read, whom you know . . . and what amazes you with joy and gratitude” (CV, §132). With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can respond fully to the proclamation of the kerygma and then “can approach everything in life with passion” (Ibid.).

While Pope Francis provides a model for the proclamation of the kerygma in Chapter 4, he also explicitly states his vision for the use of kerygmatic proclamation in Chapter 7, which addresses specifically the pastoral care provided through youth ministry. The pope says that youth ministry requires two courses of action: outreach and growth (CV, §209). When it comes to outreach he describes the language that must be used with young people with what might be his most poetic description of the kerygmatic proclamation,

We need to use above all the language of closeness, the language of generous, relational and existential love that touches the heart, impacts life, and awakes hope and desires. Young people need to be approached with the grammar of love, not by being preached at (CV, §211).

For the pope, the kerygmatic proclamation is an apologetics of love, an appeal to the beautiful, and an invitation to a relationship with Jesus Christ.

When it comes to growth in the faith, Pope Francis again points to the kerygma. He states that the path for growth includes formation that develops “the kerygma, the foundational experience of encounter with God through Jesus’ death and resurrection” (CV, §213). The pope encourages us to make this formation experiential, rather than a process of indoctrination,

Rather than being too concerned with communicating a great deal of doctrine, let us first try to awaken and consolidate the great experiences that sustain the Christian life. In the words of Romano Guardini, “when we experience a great love . . . everything else becomes a part of it” (CV, §212).

Therefore, our goal in this process of growth is to proclaim and embody the kerygma to provide powerful experiences of God that touch the heart, leading to an experience of encounter with God, and the growth of authentic community life.

Pope Francis makes clear his position about the complete integration of the kerygma into the Christian way of life,

This was something I emphasized in Evangelii Gaudium, and I consider it worth repeating here. It would be a serious mistake to think that in youth ministry “the kerygma should give way to a supposedly more ‘solid’ formation . . . All Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma” and incarnating it ever more fully in our lives. Consequently, youth ministry should always include occasions for renewing and deepening our personal experience of the love of God and the living Christ (CV, §214; cf. Evangelii Gaudium, §165).

This is not the first time that Francis has returned to this quotation. In Amoris Laetitia, he stated that the kerygma should resound in and among families (cf. Amoris Laetitia, §58) and that a “renewed proclamation of the kerygma” should be given in marriage preparation (AL, §207). Pope Francis sees the kerygma as the “joyful experience of encounter with the Lord” (CV, §214) that must be the foundation and “center of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal” (EG, §164). In other words, if the Church is to grow, the kerygma must be at the center of our words and our activities.

The pope has made it abundantly clear that the kerygma must be present throughout our activity as Church, even as part of our missionary outreach at schools and universities. Echoing his statements in Veritas Gaudium where he urges, “The most urgent and enduring criterion is that of contemplation and the presentation of a spiritual, intellectual and existential introduction to the heart of the kerygma, namely the ever fresh and attractive good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (Veritas Gaudium, §4), Pope Francis argues in Christus Vivit that we need “a fresh experience of the kerygma” with the “ability to integrate the knowledge of head, heart, and hands” (§222).

Throughout Christus Vivit, Pope Francis not only extols the use of the kerygma in the Church’s ministry to young people, but also demonstrates and models what he preaches. This practice, as we have demonstrated throughout, is not new to this Apostolic Exhortations. However, while the pope has been consistent throughout his writings, including even his tweets, in employing the kerygmatic model, Christus Vivit encourages pastoral ministers to engage young people through the proclamation of the Good News more explicitly. In Pope Francis’s mind, we must give people the reason for their hope and for remaining Catholic over the noise of the world. To demonstrate this aim he uses the example of Orpheus and makes it clear that we must intone “an even more beautiful melody” than the mythological figure (CV, §223).

This more beautiful melody is the kerygmatic proclamation of Christ crucified and risen.

[1] Related to the preaching of the gospel, especially emulating the early Church’s proclamation

[2] The Joy of the Gospel (2013); The Joy of Love (2016); Rejoice and Be Glad (2018)


Vincent J. Reilly

Vincent J. Reilly is the Director of Faith Formation at St. Catherine Catholic Church in Orange Park, Florida, where he leads several Kerygma Evangelization Retreats each year.

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