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20 March 2020

Caring for young people: a reading from Acts 20:6-12

In the wake of the recent Synod of Bishops on Young People, the short story of Acts 20:6-12 offers us a challenge. In it, Luke recounts that after a week-long visit of Saint Paul to Troas, the disciples gathered together on the day before his departure to hear him one last time and to celebrate the Eucharist with him.

Obviously, things were clicking between the Apostle to the Nations and the Christians of Troas and the atmosphere was electric. There are a lot of people in the upstairs room (v. 8) and they are radiating so much light from the Gospel that Luke does not hesitate to compare them to lamps. Everyone is hanging on Paul’s every word and the people are ready to listen to him until the middle of the night (v. 7).

A boring liturgy for young people

Everyone is listening to Paul, with the exception of one young man (neanias, in Greek) named Eutychus. He is probably an older teenager whose parents forced him to participate in the community liturgy. Clearly, this young man is literally bored to death. This liturgy does not reach him at all. While this type of gathering suits his parents and the other adults, that isn’t the case for him. So, he stays as far away as possible. Sitting on the window sill at the back of the room, he is symbolically on the border between the space lit by the Gospel and the darkness outside, that of a world without the light of Christ. Focused on their own experience, the community does not seem to care about him.

Luke reports that this young man ends up falling asleep. He falls backwards into the darkness, from the top of the third floor, and he kills himself. As is often the case, the author of Acts expresses himself here in colourful language with theological significance. We understand his point by comparing it to what Paul writes in I Thess 5:4-6: “But you, brothers, do not live in the dark… No, you are all children of light and children of the day: we do not belong to the night or to darkness, so we should not go on sleeping, as everyone else does, but stay wide awake and sober.”

In fact, the falling asleep of Eutychus means that he is closed to the Word of God. He thus sinks into the darkness of spiritual death. At first glance, this youth has a first name which contradicts his experience. Eutychus actually means “the lucky one.” But things will not stay that way.

Invigorating attitudes for young people

Witnessing this fall, Saint Paul hastens to descend from the upstairs room to be by the young man’s side. The apostle exhibits pastoral attitudes that are absolutely remarkable. He does not hesitate a second to leave the room bathed in light to descend down into the darkness where the young man was in danger of death. He leaves behind the liturgical assembly to put himself at the level of the adolescent. He takes care of him personally. Paul gives him the entire quality of his presence: he takes him in his arms (v. 10)! We could even translate the Greek verb (sumperilambanô) by saying that he embraces him. It is a presence of tenderness, a loving presence. We see that Eutychus becomes his priority. He provides him with personalized pastoral care, adjusted to his reality. Paul resembles the shepherd of the parable who leaves the 99 sheep of the flock to go in search of the lost one (Lk 15:4).

As a result of his efforts, Paul is able to exclaim, “There is no need to worry, there is still life in him” (v. 10). As a result of an adapted intervention, the young man opened himself to the life of the Gospel, he went from death to Life. The name that Luke chose to give to his character takes on its full meaning. Eutychus is lucky to have encountered a missionary like Paul.

Towards an intergenerational communion

The story ends by mentioning that community members “took the boy away alive” (v. 12). Encouraged by Paul’s example, the community takes an interest in the boy and now takes charge of his progress in the faith. The community initiates him into the Gospel. Less focused on itself, the community opens up to this young person and opts for a catechetical approach adapted to his reality. Paul took the initiative to go to a young man in spiritual agony, but he was able to bring along the whole community in his wake. The communion of the Christians of Troas thus expands to become truly intergenerational.

Our communities face-to-face with youth

Where are we in our religious communities? Are we still concerned with awakening the younger generations to the faith? Do we tend to withdraw into ourselves, fulfilled by the liturgies that we celebrate among ourselves? Do we have our eyes open to discern the needs of the younger generations or do we just lock ourselves up in our homes? Would we have conversions to make, personally and in community, to be more like Paul? Would we have to review our priorities as he himself was able to do?

In Canada, a large proportion of young people attend neither our churches nor our pastoral activities. Like Eutychus, they seem indifferent to the Word of God and, like him, they risk falling into spiritual death. Wouldn’t they need someone to go up to them and look carefully at what they’re going through? Could it be that the risen Christ needs us to express to them a presence of tenderness? Could this be one possible way to arouse an awakening to life with Christ?

To continue the reflection

  1. What personal and community conversions does the story of Acts 20:6-12 urge us to make?
  2. Taking into account our reality (age, health, availability, etc.), what concrete actions could we take to get closer to what Paul and the Troas community experienced with regard to youth?

Michel Proulx, O PRAEM

This text is taken from the Winter 2020 issue of the ad vitam webzine “A Communion that Generates Mission”.