12 August is the United Nations’ International Youth Day. International Youth Day brings youth issues to the attention of the international community and celebrating the potential of youth as partners in today’s global society.
International Youth Day, like all international days, reminds us of the importance of people who can slip from our minds if we are not members of their group. It reminds us that young people will inherit a world that their elders have shaped, and also that their own interests are often lost as others shape it. It reminds us, too, that the young people whom we gather together and praise or disparage as youth are not identical. Each young person, like each older person, is precious and calls for respect for who they are, and not for their wealth, nation, behaviour or achievements.
Young people are sometimes criticised for thinking only of the present and not caring about the future. Actually, many young people are anxious about the future. We have only to think of Greta Thunberg and the young people whom she has led to demand a proper response to climate change. It is the adult world, through the attention and forgetfulness of daily lives, the media and politics, that often focuses overwhelmingly on the present. We elders may think of the weather in terms of the frost we experience in July, not in terms of what is likely in the summers of 20 years time. When we think of youthful anti-social behaviour, we focus on ways of punishing it immediately, not on the effects that the punishments we devise will have on the young people whom we punish. We think of the freedoms we must sacrifice today in order to overcome COVID and not of what our lives will be like in the future if we do not make sacrifices. We think of the state of the world today and not of what it will be like for our grandchildren.
International Youth Day invites us to take a longer perspective. It asks us to see in our heart’s eye the lives of young people around the world, their yearnings and their possibilities. We will then appreciate how the life-shaping question that many young people will face each day is whether they will find anything to eat. We also see the very many who wonder if their path out of childhood will be brought to a sudden end by sickness due to overcrowding and poor sanitation or by violence. We shall see, too, the faces of many young people whose transition to adult life takes place beyond barbed wire in refugee camps or prisons. World Youth Day invites us to grieve for the human loss of these young people themselves and of the societies to which they could have brought their gifts.
Though International Youth Day reminds us of the loss and pain of so many young people it also points to their extraordinary resilience and invites us to celebrate their extraordinary gifts in the arts, in sport, and in their contribution to their community as volunteers. Young people encourage their elders, not only through their achievements but even more through their generosity and their passion for a more just world.
In our work at Jesuit Communications, we focus on young people who have lived with disadvantage. We have walked with them in their pain and struggles and in nurturing their desire for a full life with rich relationships. We have also been amazed and humbled to see their resilience in the face of challenges that few of us have known. For us, International Youth Day is a time for celebration.
This is a day for seeing and reflecting on the lives of young people in our society. Even more, it is a day for listening to their voice, their hopes and fears, their aspirations, and to encourage them in living a full and rich life.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.