Monday, February 3, 2014

Young Adults Leading the Way

World Youth Day 2013
This week I received a fantastic letter from a youth group leader.  He passed along three "life questions" which the high school students had come up with.
Below are their questions and my initial thoughts in reply.  As you check them out, consider what else you would add, and how else you might encourage such inspiring young people in their faith journeys. 
Dear Henry,

Thank you so much for your wonderful letter!  The questions that your youth group has come up with are truly edifying. 

I am reminded of a line from e.e. cummings, “Always the beautiful answer who asks the more beautiful question”:  Please let your youth group know that, if they continue to ask such great questions, our Lord will definitely bless them with answers which are Good and True and Beautiful.  (After all, Jesus clearly tells us, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you [Lk 11:9].)

I hope that these brief responses to your questions do indeed “gladden your hearts,” as you put it in your letter, and that they serve as an initial spring-board for additional prayer and reflection.  So, here goes!

1.      “What do you think is the best way to grow in holiness when one is very busy each day (like many high school students are)?

Somehow, we need to intentionally relate our “busy-ness” to the "business" of building the Kingdom of God.  In other words, we need to start each day in prayer, asking Jesus what he wants us to do and who he needs us to be.  At various points throughout the day, if we pause and ask, “Lord, show me what you want me to say,” or if we pray, “Lord, thy will be done,” then our whole day can slowly be transformed by the real and active presence of the Holy Spirit. 

The Daily Offering is a great place to start, since in it we pray that all of our "prayers, works, joys, and sufferings" of the day be joined to Jesus’ gift of himself in the Eucharist.  If we can see our life as a gift from God, receive it with gratitude, and then make a gift of ourselves back to him each day, then we will true stewards of the life which he has shared with us. 

I also think that making a daily prayer plan is "mission essential."  An old saying puts it well, “if people fail to plan, they actually are planning to fail.”  Conversely, if we make a prayer plan and stick to it, we will certainly grow closer to the Lord, we will certainly hear his "still, small voice," and we will certainly become who he needs us to be.  Morning prayer time, stolen silent moments of sitting and listening, devotions of the Church, and a nightly examination of conscience all help us become more aware of God's living presence here and now.

2.      “In today’s culture and society, what do you think is the best way to maintain a strong Catholic identity as an individual?”

To maintain a strong Catholic identity, we need to stay close to Jesus, in and through the Church.  This definitely means having a deep personal prayer life, speaking “heart to heart” with our Risen Lord.  But it also means encountering him in the Scripture and the Sacraments—particularly in the holy sacrifice of the Mass--and fostering Christian friendships so we have people to support and challenge us on our journey. 

When I was in college, I heard a priest say that participating in the Mass was “the most profound thing we could ever do.”  This made quite an impression on me, because I had a nagging sense that God doesn’t just want us to live trivial lives; he wants us all to do something profound, for his greater glory.  Each of us needs to remember that God has an incredible plan for our life, a mission which no one else can accomplish, a profound purpose which he will reveal gradually to us.

But opening ourselves to the living Word of God and letting the Mass transform our lives will require that we become truly “counter-cultural.”  The culture and society we live in is designed to cut God out of our daily lives (this is the “radical secularization” or the “culture of indifference” of which Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have spoken). If we ponder and mediate on the Sunday Gospel each week, for example, the Holy Spirit will lift up a personal insight that will help carry us through the week.  We will see how we can live in right relationship with God and with others; we will learn what love means and how we can make a gift of ourselves to those around us.  This is the radical path that the first Christians walked as they brought the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

3.      “What do you believe is the largest factor that is keeping young people from coming closer to Christ?  And what can they do about it?”

I think your group should be answering this one for me!  As a former high school teacher and a parent of teenagers, it seems to me that relativism and “worldliness,” as Pope Francis has been saying, are very real threats for all of us—but particularly for young people.  Relativism hinges on the claim that there is no universal truth; everything is relative to the individual, so I have my truth and you have yours.  (This is, of course, ironic since the one universal truth is that there is supposedly no universal truth!)  Young people today have great instincts about not judging other people; Jesus would certainly agree.  However, we need to think critically and judge thoughtfully the many ideas and ideologies that are thrown at us each day; not all ideas are equal, and some can have very harmful consequences. 

“Worldliness” is related because our culture wants to convince us that this life is all there is.  It wants us to believe that following Jesus is only one option among many (and not a reasonable one at that), that earning a living and being financially successful are all that really matters, that pursuing pleasure is the only way to make ourselves “happy.”  Young people have pretty good radar for hypocrisy, and they innately sense that these “worldly” responses are superficial.  But then the temptation is to think that there is no real alternative, that life is meaningless, that everything is just gray and ambiguous, and perhaps even to give into despair. 

The Good News is Jesus :)  He is the Way and the Truth and the Life.  True happiness is possible; there is Someone who loves us with an infinite and personal love!  Young people need to keep this vision in their hearts at all times—as well as share it with their friends.

In closing, I hope that these reflections are helpful to you and your youth group, Henry.  May the good Lord continue to bless your work as a “missionary disciple,” and may the students in your youth group continue to follow Jesus wholeheartedly—as they help share the joy of the Gospel with all those they meet!

Peace and God bless,