Veritatis splendor: The Rich Young Man yesterday and today

At the outset of Veritatis splendor John Paul II expounds on the Gospel encounter between the rich young man and Christ (Mt 19:16) The young man asks Jesus what he needs to do to attain eternal life. Jesus responds by telling him to follow the commandments. The young man says that he has always done so. The young man is restless, he is seeking some deeper answer. He is asking for something more. John Paul says that for “the young man, the question is not so much about rules to be followed, but about the full meaning of life. This is in fact the aspiration at the heart of every human decision and action, the quiet searching and interior prompting which sets freedom in motion. This question is ultimately an appeal to the absolute Good which attracts us and beckons us; it is the echo of a call from God who is the origin and goal of man’s life.” (§7) The young man needs to learn the way of love, as do we all. But love requires sacrifice, perhaps demanding very much. In this case Jesus says give away all of your possessions.

Perhaps Jesus, in looking on the man with love, saw just what was holding him back, his attachment to money and privilege. Thus the young man is not willing to look beyond the law to its purpose nor is he ready to see in Jesus the embodiment of divine wisdom. He turns from Jesus with sadness because he can not bring himself to give up his attachment and to risk the venture of faith. But why is he sad? He has his wealth and his moral complacency. We could say as Newman said of conscience, the young man “vaguely reaches forward to something beyond self, and dimly discerns a sanction higher than self for its decisions.” Or as John Paul said in Redemptor hominis, “the man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly‑‑and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being‑‑must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ.” (RH §10) The deepest reason he leaves in sadness, John Paul explains, is that he must acknowledge his own lack of self-sufficiency (§23) and face squarely a demand that transcends human aspiration and ability. (§22) He must be open to grace. But even the disciples were taken aback by the challenge — “Lord, who can be saved?” To which Jesus responds, with God all things are possible.

John Paul says that Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man continues “in every period of history, including our own.” For the question: what must I do to be good, what must I do to be saved, “arises in the heart of every individual, and it is Christ alone who is capable of giving the full and definitive answer.” (§25)

In his speech at world youth day in 1985 John Paul II said that youth itself is a treasure which must be given in love. John Paul was solicitous of the young, that they be challenged to live generously and fully in God. In fact, in writing of the third millennium he said: “The future of the world and the Church belongs to the younger generation, to those who, born in this century, will reach maturity in the next, the first century of the new millennium. Christ expects great things from young people, as he did from the young man who asked him: ‘What good deed must I do, to have eternal life?’ (Mt 19:16). I have referred to the remarkable answer which Jesus gave to him, in the recent Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, as I did earlier, in 1985, in my Apostolic Letter to the Youth of the World. Young people, in every situation, in every region of the world, do not cease to put questions to Christ: they meet him and they keep searching for him in order to question him further. If they succeed in following the road which he points out to them, they will have the joy of making their own contribution to his presence in the next century and in the centuries to come, until the end of time: ‘Jesus is the same yesterday, today and for ever’.” Tertio Millennio adveniente §58.

We must take from Pope John Paul’s legacy a loving concern for the youth. Education must be our first priority. We use our resources on so many other things, and Catholic education often goes begging. But our youth are even more vulnerable today. For the young man in the Gospel, the moral law served a point of reference for the deeper call from Jesus. But today all cultural and moral points reference are toppled. Relativism, subjectivism, utilitarian expediency, consumerism scatter moral laws and models pell mell. John Paul said that he wrote Fides et ratio as a follow up to Veritatis splendor precisely because we need theology and philosophy to help recover critical points of reference: in “this time of rapid and complex change can leave especially the younger generation, to whom the future belongs and on whom it depends, with a sense that they have no valid points of reference. The need for a foundation for personal and communal life becomes all the more pressing at a time when we are faced with the patent inadequacy of perspectives in which the ephemeral is affirmed as a value and the possibility of discovering the real meaning of life is cast into doubt. This is why many people stumble through life to the very edge of the abyss without knowing where they are going. At times, this happens because those whose vocation it is to give cultural expression to their thinking no longer look to truth.” (§7)

Western culture and academia have left the young exposed to the abyss, indeed push them to the abyss of moral chaos and collapse. An education based upon faith and reason is the best hope for the future. And there is reason for hope. For if the rich young man of the gospel, with a strong Jewish culture and the moral commandments as points of reference, still remained stuck in his sufficiency and isolation, the youth of today, with so few points of reference, will reach out to Christ lest they fall into the abyss or they will call on him to find their way out..

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