PUBLISHED IN LANTAYAN Vol. 10 (Academic Year 2011-2012)
Pastoral-Theological Journal of Don Bosco Center of Studies, Paranaque City, Philippines
Fr. Fabio Attard, SDB, SThD
General Councilor, Youth Ministry Department of the Salesians of Don Bosco, Rome
I would like to start this reflection by sharing two quotes that somehow give us a broader understanding of the challenges that are part and parcel of educating the young. In no one particular time in history has education been an easy task. It was and will always remain a demanding one.
Thus says the first quote: “We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self-control.”
A second quote, more or less, confirms the same idea: “What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?”
These two quotes do not belong to modern thinkers or contemporary commentators. The first one is a six thousand-year-old inscription found in an Egyptian tomb, while the second one is relatively nearer to our time: it is attributed to the fourth century BC philosopher Plato—two thousand four hundred years ago.
Whether in ministry, formation or education, we all need to at least become conscious of the fact that journeying with the young always raised some eyebrows. This is no less true for us in this day and age.
The present scenario is quite complex. It is not that it was easy before, yet we all agree that youth ministry today is not, and cannot, be the same as youth ministry, let’s say, twenty years ago. The question is why? What has changed in the meantime?
Although it would be quite interesting to study the various dimensions that have caused this change, our main aim here is to offer some reflections on how we can respond to this changing society. In other words, in what way are we called to be engaged, so that ”who” we are and “Him”’ whom we have embraced can be translated into a gift to be shared with those to whom we are sent.
As a backdrop to this reflection, I would like you to keep alive the event of the incarnation. Incarnation, not as an idea, but more importantly as an event that reaches down to the depth of being, bringing forth an attitude of the heart open to the divine who has come to visit us. The Gospel message, in its essence, is the full revelation of the Trinitarian God: who communicates his love in creation; who reaches out to each and every one of us in the advent of his Son, Jesus Christ; and who never ceases to be present within us, among us and for us through the force of the Spirit. We need to give fundamental importance to this singular, since it is within this mystical experience, the Trinitarian experience, that we grasp the divine who lies hidden in the hearts of the young. Only thus can we succeed to root our ministerial “being”, identity, and therefore, as a consequence, our ministerial “doing”, presence and action.
Knowledge of the Youth Situation
As ministers to the young, it is our duty to be familiar with the scenario in which they live. Regardless of how we might judge this scenario, there is one thing we should never forget: the young did not choose this; they just found themselves in it. If it is not due to their merit, it is definitely not their fault either. This simple fact should already tell us something about the dangerous superiority complex that might at times condition the way we interpret their difficult situations—the way we deal with conflicts and misunderstanding that necessarily form part of any ministerial relationship.
The second point I would to make is that there is so much happening in young people’s lives today. Unless we listen carefully and actively contemplate whatever is going on out there, we risk missing not only the plot of their story, but, even worse, the honesty of their hidden search, their authentic yearning for the divine, their unexpressed yet real willingness to be encountered and to be accompanied.
A Changing Society
A prominent writer and a well-known observer of this globalized society, Zygmunt Bauman, gives the name liquidity to our postmodern times. He does not look at society from the point of view of what is changing, but rather from the perspective that it is a society in a state of fluidity. The changing nature of our society contrasts heavily with the previous vision of society that many of us grew up in—a stable society, with clear rules and codes of behavior. Change, now, is not so much considered as an event, as an adjective, as “something”. Rather it is perceived as a paradigm, as subject. Liquid Modernity, the title of a book published by Zygmunt Bauman, fittingly explains the present stage of things.
Within this context, this constant shift tends to complicate matters, no matter where and how it takes place. Things will be even more complicated if we understand this situation more as a problem, and less as a phenomenon. We see it, and we are asked to be prepared on the way it needs to be handled.
A Different Story
With the shift that has taken place, and is constantly taking place, we are faced with new social setups, new ways of relating, new ways of perceiving realities. On one side, we present ourselves to the young with the aim of helping them and journeying with them. But on the other side, we know that at times things get tough, and we find ourselves at a loss; we run the risk of giving up. We want to be there with them, but, deep down within us, we want to be there on our terms, while, in actual fact, they want us to be there for them. Face-to-face with their styles, their choices, their ways of living, we feel a certain distance. We feel that this scenario is new, we have not been here before! This is a crucial point in ministry, as it has been for Jesus as he journeyed with his disciples.
Unless this state of things is immediately picked up and recognized, it has the force to condition our way of reading their story, of perceiving their needs, and ultimately of being true ministers, educators, for them.
We could easily find ourselves in that awkward situation where we accept to be physically present, but deep down within us we are conditioned by a subtle affective distance. We do not refuse them, and we still give the impression of being interested in their story, but we do not really take this onboard; we do not fully accept them as they are, or meet them where they are.
Educating the young and journeying with them with this hidden attitude, tend to make our presence quite impersonal—lacking that inner conviction. The problem is that young people are quick to pick it up.
Need for Authenticity and Honesty
Young people are not asking us to renounce our story or our identity. All they are asking from us is that we share their journey with some clear parameters: they want us to listen to them, and accept them without judging them. Honest and authentic witnesses—this is what they are mostly looking for. They only appreciate educators who are also witnesses. And they know it and sense it when they encounter real ones.
Anonymity and lack of person-centeredness are the two major characteristics of postmodernism. Young people, for their part, are longing for relationships that have the power to overcome the paradigm of impersonalism.
Imagine what it means for the young, when an educator takes a pro-active stand, being engaged in an honest and dedicated manner. Imagine what it means for them to have adults who have the courage to propose experiences of solidarity, to encourage and invite their response within the context of honesty and truth. If any example is needed, it is enough to look at the whole volunteers’ movement, the massive numbers of young people and the amount of good that is being both given and received.
So, here we are again face-to-face with another contradiction of our postmodern times: on one side, there seems to be deep apathy on the part of the young, while on the other, we witness their willingness to be main actors within their environment. There seems to be an anonymous atmosphere all around us, and yet there is also a deep-seated desire to meet the “other”, to feel accepted, to be known and to reach out.
It would be a real pity if we miss being there in these existential junctures of life, or axes as Karl Jaspers calls them.
I would like to touch on the issue of spirituality and the understanding of the Church. Many of us have grown up in times and within environments where the Church was very much at the center of whatever was happening. The presence of the Church, with its corollary meaning and values, rituals and folklore, heritage and culture, was undeniably part and parcel of life. Even when events of a controversial nature took place, these somehow confirmed its centrality.
In the present time, and in relation to the world our young inhabit, reality is changing, and changing fast. What we might be seeing is not only the lack of centrality and importance regarding the Church as an institution, but we might also be slowly witnessing an eroded knowledge and an absence language in relation to all that has to do with religion and spirituality.
As educators we start getting the feeling of being “out of sync” within this existential void. We feel not only the diffidence, but also the helplessness in the absence of a value system, which has been the backbone of our childhood. There were convergent points in our upbringing around which there was an agreement and no one discussed their worth and the importance of their inspirational force. All this seems to be gradually disappearing in the new planet our young live in. The idea of an objective value system sharply contrasts with the way they perceive values.
All this should not lead us to believe that our young people do not cherish values, or do not appreciate upright persons—far from it. On the contrary, face-to-face with a scenario where everything seems to be permitted, they are eager to come to terms with the thirst and the hunger they harbor in their hearts.
Indicators of spiritual search are on the increase on the part of young people. It is not happening in a way that will take us back to the past. It is rather evolving in a way that resembles the title of a film some decades ago: back to the future!
The future will not be a repetition of the past. It will be a scenario marked by those postmodern cultural elements that we are seeing everyday: young people will be engaged in a religious and spiritual search signed by autonomy, sense of self, individuality. The challenge for us is how far can we connect with their deep aspirations. How much are we going to let these desires surface in a way that these can be recognized, educated, accompanied and processed. How ready are we to be patient and compassionate so that these same aspirations can flower, bringing forth that beauty and goodness that our young are longing for.
It is not easy; it is challenging and also demanding. Yet there is no reason for us to abandon the field, or, even worse, to disqualify their search for meaning.
Family, School, and Church
One of the institutions which has greatly suffered in these changing times is that of the family. Yet I would like to comment on the family in relation to the influence it leaves on people’s lives, especially when seen in relation to another great agency of education: the school. No need to remind one and all that a significant shift has taken place in the way these two institutions are perceived, and also in the way they interact. We can also say that this shift has affected, as well, another institution that accompanies the first two: the Church.
We notice a shift in the educational model in general—from a vertical and frequently hierarchical one, to one which is more attentive to processes, a more communitarian model.
The family issue has necessarily been caught up in all this. The gradual absence of connectedness between family and school has left both institutions orphans of each other. Their previous relationship, and the role played by the Church, in general, provided a sort of network in relation to values and a collective memory. All this has, or is slowly, disappearing. While we need to avoid the danger of looking at the past as a perfect social setup, we have to admit that the relationship and connectedness of family and school needs particular attention. There is a deficit that needs to be addressed.
A salient aspect in the area of relationships is the ever growing absence of adults in the life of the young. In practical terms, we are witnessing the absence of parents and significant adults, while not always realizing how it is affecting our young. The family unit is becoming less the main arena where processes take place and paradigms are assimilated. There is usually a void left within young people’s hearts when, for example, the sense of community does not start within the family. The same can be said in relation to a shared value system, a common language, the fostering of a collective memory. The absence of a family experience has far-reaching consequences.
As educators, we frequently encounter the desire expressed by so many parents who ask to be accompanied in the education of their children. They feel lost and lonely, unable to connect with their own offspring. They do not posses their “language”, fail to understand their symbols, are not part of their habitat—whether virtual or real.
This young generation is earning many names since they do not have a definite one. One of these names is “children of many parents”—a very common tag. They are also known as “orphans with living parents”, or “Generation Y”, since they have too many questions with nobody to listen to them, let alone offer answers.
Those of us who are called to accompany the young, to journey with this generation, need to be equipped with a huge amount of patience and compassion. Many times, the frustration of the young is the result of having nobody to listen to their anger, to visit the hollowness of their hearts, and to help them encounter “Someone” whose name they do not know. It is quite easy, at times even natural, to react to their anger. Yet it is not anger which is coming forth, it is fear. Their occasional violent behavior is not a cause but a consequence. We need to be very careful not to judge them, but rather to acknowledge them, humbly and silently. Hidden deep down in our young people’s inner sanctuary is a wounded heart, a tired spirit, a longing for someone to listen.
In this context, the school cannot simply be an academic institution; it needs to be a home. It is called to be a welcoming space, where challenges are offered within processes of companionship. It is not easy to educate and accompany with a fatherly and motherly heart those who are desperately seeking their home. That is why education is called “an art”. Face-to-face with these postmodern seekers, we are called to offer a generous and intelligent answer.
The Way Forward
No doubt, some of us might feel a certain sense of loss. Some others might find difficulty to capture the plot. Probably, most of us fail to understand what exactly is going on around us. We still have the desire to honestly serve the young, yet we also have the feeling that we are not even connecting with them.
Strange as it may sound, it is certainly a positive thing to be aware of all these sentiments, to stay with them and to listen to what they are saying to us.
The good news is that our young people know our fears. They are aware that it is not easy for us to “incarnate” ourselves in their story. And they have no problem with that. They appreciate our efforts. They welcome our desire to journey with them. They are the last ones who want us to abandon them, to see us go and leave them alone.
So the question is: What is going to give us hope and offer us reason to stay?
The Rootedness of the Minister
If we want real processes to take place in the area of youth ministry, we have to focus, first and foremost, on the whole area of personal witness. If there was ever a time when prophecy was needed, that time is ours. The biblical image of the prophet, as we all know, is not the one who foretells the future, but rather the one who becomes a reminder that God is present in the “here and now”. The prophet is the one whose life proclaims the Good News, wherever he/she is, whatever he/she does.
In a very recent interview by Frère Alois of Taizé, an interview which appeared in one of the latest Cahiers of the review Panorama published in France, he clearly commented on this phenomenon of the spiritual longing of the young: “Young people are after a strong spiritual search. They realize that life’s meaning cannot be limited to the search for material goods. They are looking for friendship, communion. The Church, as a space of friendship, is a response for what they are looking for today.”
Simon Weil, a French intellectual who had struggled hard to find her way to faith in Jesus as a committed intellectual communist, wrote some profound reflections on the person who accompanied her on this demanding journey. She said of her spiritual director: “It is not from the way a person speaks about God, but from the way that person speaks about human realities, that you feel whether his or her heart has dwelt in the fire of God’s love” (Q IV 182-183).
These two reflections simply confirm the same desire that lies in the hearts of the young today. These capture the potential value of small gestures that are real and authentic. They acknowledge those little signs that contain seeds for lasting growth. Young people are interested in those persons whose lives contain an honest and transparent proposal.
The Inner Space of Mystery
Inhabiting the prophetical space, we need to constantly ask ourselves what are the sources that inspire our vision and sustain our hope. Education, in the wider sense of the term, is not meant to offer pure and simple information; it is not a transitory, superficial experience. Education in faith is about journeying, and as such, it is in a constant state of discovery. Unless our roots are nourished, and our hearts are on fire, what happens outside ourselves might have the ultimate word. We need to discover that inner space of sacredness: a space where reflection on what happens around us and contemplation of what happens inside us can converge. And this convergence within the minister is the convergence between the minister and the young.
More than ever, there is a pressing need for whoever embarks on this journey to discover within the self the frontier of meaning, the living source of sacredness. Life is not a parenthesis, within which we try to engage in as many and as varied experiences as possible. Instead, life is a journey that needs horizons and maps to help us reach those same horizons. In this sense, life becomes a journey that longs for the beyond, already within the frame of time and space.
Young people are conveying to us adults, in more ways than one, that futility is not on their agenda, even though it is a daily temptation. They are telling us that they are looking for “Someone”, whose name they are not able to pronounce, but for whom they long in a profound manner.
Dignity, respect, longing, go beyond mere needs to be satisfied and gratified. They belong to the realm of the soul where knowledge needs to be enlightened by wisdom; reflection needs to enter into the space of mystery. Young people know that they have reached “home” the moment they connect with deep spiritual values, values which they can “see and feel” in those around them who have assumed and integrated them in an honest and authentic manner.
The Process—Patience and Compassion
In this new territory change is a state of being. We tend to think about change as something which ceases to be one thing, becoming another. In a postmodern society, change, as we have already said, is a state of being—fluidity. Nothing seems to be stable. What I think today might not be the same tomorrow. We get the impression that nothing seems to last—including relationships, commitments and promises. This general impression of a continuous shift also affects our educational and pastoral experience.
I am pretty sure that many of us involved in education and ministry have stories to share about this. We think we have achieved something, that we have arrived at a certain point, then, all of a sudden, we realize that we are still not there, we are still journeying. Those of us who are used to handling reality with mathematical precision, or are very systematic and precise, find themselves lost with this absence of apparent logic that flows from a vision of causes and consequences.
The way forward is for each one of us to discover the paradigm contained in the parable of the seed’s growth in Mark’s Gospel. Night and day, rain or shine, the seed is growing and the sower knows it. At times, it is so easy to fall into the trap of immediate efficiency, quick educational results and desire to speed up the process. And yet deep down, we know that ministry is similar to sowing, it takes time.
The central issue, the main challenge, is whether we are sowing intelligently, with honesty and authenticity. If this is the case, then the process will only mature the good seed, until it grows to its full stature.
This is not a passive journey. It is not an experience in which we can simply be resigned to what comes, or does not come, our way. Again, I refer to another Gospel paradigm, a true story with Jesus himself as the main actor: the Emmaus story.
The one who “joins” the pilgrims—Jesus himself came up and walked along with them (cf. Lk 24:15)—assumes the attitude of listening: listening to a story of failure and desperation. Two people have lost hope and all they can do is to share this loss. By accompanying these two people, Jesus is simply there with them, even to the point of taking the wrong direction—away from Jerusalem. What is at stake here is very clear: they need to be listened to.
Only when this is done will they be ready to listen—even to a message which, at face value, goes against what they are presently feeling, what they had just experienced.
Yet they are open, there is no refusal on their part, not even a hint of opposition to the words which are contradicting their story. This openness, hidden and unexpected, happens after they are accepted and listened to. Their whole story has taken a radical twist.
Now, they are interested, their hearts are burning, not knowing why. They even accept the “stranger” in their home: “’Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them” (Lk 24:29). And the rest is history, as the saying goes.
Not past history, though. Fortunately enough for us, it is very much a present reality. Emmaus is here, amongst us today. We have a whole population who gives the impression of having no faith, of having lost all possible and imaginable signs of hope. But, in actual fact, this is a generation eager to believe, open to hope and still capable of loving. This is a generation ever ready to be generous, while eagerly wanting somebody to hear their silent cry, their deep-seated desires, their spiritual longing.
This whole situation reminds me of what some sociologists of religion call the “iceberg paradigm”. What we see is not what we are actually faced with. We need to measure the invisible by that which is visible. It is not easy, yet it is possible. It calls for what we may name as a hermeneutical process, where the immediate and the visible points of reference are hinting to that which cannot be seen or measured; yet it is there and can only be captured. In other words, we need to see young people’s stories from within the frame of interiority, the yearning for the divine.
I would like to conclude this reflection by offering some practical guidelines that can accompany us on the journey of formation and education of the young: We need to analyze and reflect on today’s reality with an intelligent attitude. We have to discover the unedited possibilities that postmodernism is offering us—possibilities which are new, and for this reason, need to be approached with both humility and intelligence.
We need to engage with culture, with the new paradigms and methodologies, within the new fora that are available. Unless we do this, we risk losing the opportunities that are presented to us, simply because we prefer to think and act inside the box.
We need to prepare people to enter into this new territory with us. We have to think in terms of community-based ministry, pastoral and educative communities who avoid reading the present scenario with the filters of the past. Young people are asking us for new wine in new wineskins. Human sciences, and familiarity with them, are not a luxury but a necessity. We cannot educate by adopting half-measures or outdated approaches. I constantly quote a friend of mine, who hailed from the human sciences sector: “If you offer peanuts, you get monkeys.”
Finally, we need to root ourselves in a life of faith, hope and charity—a life sustained by the Eucharist, the Word of God, and the celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation.
With these clear parameters incorporating the human and the spiritual, we become who we are called to be:
Prophets of the Lord, not mere professionals of his message. We need to have firsthand knowledge of Him whom we proclaim, and not simply be satisfied to speak well of Him. We need to be able to listen to Him, before we accept talk about Him—bearers of the Good News, which has become alive in us.
Mystics, not managers of the sacred. The true value of our witness is not in what we say or how we say it, but where it is coming from. Our words and our actions will leave an imprint only if they come from a heart in deep friendship with Jesus, a relationship nurtured by the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation, and sustained by the Word of God.
Servants, not supervisors. What we share is not ours; it is given to us, freely offered to us, so as to be joyously shared. The central act of the last supper in the Gospel of John is the washing of the feet. The truth of mystery is ultimately reflected in the humility of free and loving service.
Pilgrims, not only preachers. The Emmaus story is about journeying, even knowingly taking the wrong direction, as long as this favors what is deeper and more desirable—overcoming the darkness of despair and loneliness.
Attentive listeners, not impersonal experts. We are called to intelligently enlighten and educate the question. The gentle and patient listener is not afraid of doubt, since it is the space for real and authentic growth. The wise and humble listener is not eager to give answers, but to propose and engage in processes. The spiritual and mystic listener favors the encounter with Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Bearers of integral and gradual growth experiences. We do not simply provide entertainment or prefabricated answers. As youth ministers, we have the duty to propose journeys where, first and foremost, young people feel welcome—where authentic witnesses of faith and humanity propose high ideals of holiness.
I hope you will allow me to conclude with a quote from Don Bosco. In a letter he wrote in 1884, four years before he died, Don Bosco invited his Salesians to be aware of the danger of leading a life which is distant from the young, from their world. It will only be through a sharing in their interests that trust is created, a trust that can sustain processes for growth: “One who knows he is loved loves in return, and one who loves can obtain anything, especially from the young. This confidence creates an electric current between youngsters and their educators. Hearts are opened, needs and weaknesses made known. This love enables educators to put up with the weariness, the annoyance, the ingratitude, the troubles that youngsters cause. Jesus Christ did not crush the bruised reed nor quench the smouldering flax. He is your model.”