The Priest: Vitally Needed to Educate Youth

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The Role of the Priest: Guardian Teacher of Vital Truth 

Culture and civilization  come from the creation of new patterns of thought and action affecting peoples everyday lives.

At the center of these patterns, unifying them, lies the matrix: the over-arching vision of the All with the answers given to the greatest questions: Why does the universe exist? Is there a God? What are His attributes? Who is man?  Why does he exist? Is there life after death? How should man relate to God? What is the meaning of love?

Above all it is from the answer given to how man should relate to God– religio – that culture is born. Arnold J. Toynbee in his twelve-volume A Study of History stated that all civilizations of history – except our post-Western one –  have been religious.

By religious he meant that the social institutions ( marriage, family, rituals, education and the arts) were all characterized by their relationship to the divine.

This is the logical way of thinking about  reality since only if everything has meaning, does anything have meaning and everything can only have meaning if there is an ultimate or first causality.

The universal experience of cause and effect has led man, explicitly or implicitly, to recognize –however vaguely – that there must be a transcendent explanation for everything: this has been the universal basis for the various religions.

The Catholic Faith, taught by the priest in season and out of season, proclaims the answers to these great questions giving the big picture to even the youngest minds listening in church or classroom.

Every time the priest explains the Faith, young buds, open to the sunlight of Truth, soak it in and prepare to radiate the truth, goodness and beauty of  the religion founded on the Incarnation to family and society.

Priests can never  overestimate the importance of  teaching the catechism ( the code and charter of Catholics) and apologetics.  Here is where Christian  civilization is born and  strengthened to endure: from here flows the strength of the heart and the hearth; here are sown the seeds of inspiration for the masterpieces of Christian art, architecture and music for amidst those young minds attentively listening to the priest’s explanations of the Faith are those exceptionally-gifted: the Michelangelos, Hroswithas and Tolkiens of history.

“The experience of twenty centuries”, said Pope Pius XI in  Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, “ fully and gloriously reveals the power for good of the word of the priest. Being the faithful echo and reecho of the ‘word of God’, which ‘is living and effectual and more piercing than any two-edged sword’ it too reaches ‘unto the division of the soul and spirit’; it awakens heroism of every kind, in every class and place, and inspires the self-forgetful deeds of the most generous hearts…”[1]

Every true priest – not just the many whose names appear on history’s pages– has changed and will change the world because they are – as Pius XI stated – “everywhere as unwearied heralds of the good tidings which alone can save and advance true civilization and culture, or help them to rise again. The word of the priest enters the soul and brings light and power; the voice of the priest rises calmly above the storms of passion, fearlessly to proclaim the truth, and exhort to the good; that truth which clarifies and solves the gravest problems of human life; that good which no misfortune can take from us, which death but secures and renders immortal.”[2]

The great priest-teachers of the Faith through the centuries are eloquent role models of how the priest can build civilization by being a faithful guardian of Catholic doctrine. St. Augustine through his writings such as  City of God  has influenced intellectuals and statesmen down to the present day; St. Charles Borromeo founded “Schools of Christian Doctrine” teaching the Faith to thousands of children; St. Peter Canisius’ Catechism helped spread the Faith among Europeans in the 17th century, St. Thomas Aquinas’ ideas on man and government inspired thinkers like Jacques Maritain who had such influence on  Christian Democrat parties in the last century.

But what these “Hall of Fame”  theologians and catechists did on a gigantic scale, every true  priest and bishop does at the level of parish, school or diocese!  When the priest in the pulpit, parish hall or classroom teaches catechism and apologetics to children teenagers and adults, the wheels of historical change are set in motion; in that very act  he lays or strengthens the foundations for a Christian civilization; he plants seeds that even though they be as small as the mustard seed can one day grow to be tall and mighty and be a source of shelter for many in time and for eternity. “The bishop as chief teacher of the Faith and morals in the diocese”, said Cardinal Raymond Burke, “carries an especially heavy and constant burden in providing the sound teaching which safeguards and promotes the good of all the faithful, especially those who cannot take care of or defend themselves…Catechesis is a most fundamental responsibility which the bishop exercises on behalf of the good of the faithful entrusted to his care, ultimately of their eternal salvation” [3]


The Priest: Indispensable in Forming  Catholic Youth

“Our wisdom, we prefer to think”, wrote Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited, “ is all of our own gathering, while, if the truth be told, it is, most of it, the last coin of a legacy that dwindles with time”.

For just as we seek to conserve and build on the physical and academic foundations laid in the springtime of life, so also we must have a sense of urgency in using childhood and teenage years for laying the moral and spiritual foundations through catechesis, apologetics, spiritual direction and retreats.

Growth of the Christian soul in the theological and moral virtues occurs most naturally when it starts in the early years, when the natural idealism of youth spontaneously welcomes the most noble ideal imaginable

History is quick to point to saintly children and youth like Tarcisius, Agnes, Stanislaus and Aloysius Gonzaga who inspire young and adult Christians with their heroism. 

St.Robert Bellarmine, spiritual director of the seminarian Aloysius Gonzaga who died at 23 years of age remarked : “God…taught us through the miracle of his life that there is no such thing as coming of age with him, for boys and girls can beat us graybeards in the race to perfection. Let us thank God who lit for our guidance such an eager and splendid flame, and let us keep our eyes on it while our dark journey lasts.”

Another confirmation lies in the words of the fourteen year old Pancras who became a martyr under Diocletian:“In body I am a child but I bear a man’s heart, and by the grace of my Master Jesus Christ, your threats seem as vain to me as this idol which stands before me..”.

Youth need to have contact with the priest because the priest is the Alter Christus, the “ambassador for Christ”,the representative of the fatherhood of God who is guardian of the channels of divine life for souls.

No one can substitute him!

For youth the priest is irreplaceable as he nourishes their soul with the bread of life, absolves and strengthens them in the sacrament of mercy, confirms them as soldiers of Christ in confirmation. 

Such contact should not be limited to a “bureaucratic” administration of the sacraments. Sanctifying, teaching and leading form one “package-deal”. The great priests have always been keenly aware of this and have spent time forming youth through spiritual direction inside and outside the confessional, retreats, lectures and the organization of formative youth groups.

In the midst of our efforts to form all Catholic youth ( and to actively reach out to all the youth of the nation by inviting them to activities and programs that will lead them to the fullness of the divine truth), we will usually come across young souls who are both gifted by nature and grace: to them special education should be given to encourage them to be the future creative minorities of society.

Such has always been the care of true priest-educators, the most well-known instance being that of St. John Bosco and St. Dominic Savio. For  where will the Catholic intellectuals,  politicians, journalists, musicians and scientists originate, if not from among those formed by the priest both directly, and also indirectly, through his co-workers (the  carefully-trained catechists and teachers selected by him) as well as through the parents whom he will also have coached through special training in the transmission of the Faith? 

Where else can they originate?  Those Catholic leaders, like Blessed John Henry Newman,  who have  suddenly joined us after their formative years are but a fraction of  Catholic front-runners.

It could not be otherwise: grace is always available but grace respects the laws of psychology whereby once the springtime of life has changed into summer or autumn, conversion though possible, is extraordinary, due to the powers of darkness and the normal pressures of life which take their toll. How many more saints and Christian leaders there will be in the future if priests guide youth to God from their early years!

It’s a matter of training young Catholics who before ever they reach adulthood are convinced of the truth of Catholicism and act as Catholics in parish, school, city and diocese; youth who see it as the most natural thing in the world to study apologetics, to intelligently and winsomely propose the truths of the Faith to their non-Catholic friends, to join the youth sections of political parties in order to influence their agenda for the common good of all people.

It’s a matter of preparing the youth who in the years to come will become the saintly priests, nuns, consecrated men and women, intellectuals, writers, journalists, teachers, politicians, workers and professionals of all types who will be the vanguard of the Church’s battle for souls and civilization.

This must be the vision among us priests!

Work with youth is about preparing future Catholic apostle-leaders! 

They, the committed youth, under your guidance, can start off the parish youth group for their peers who initially only want social activities!

And the priest  of Jesus Christ is needed for what only he can do as the indispensable communicator of divine life through the sacraments,  as the surgeon of souls in the confessional, as the man with the master-plan for apostolate.

Converter of youth” is a better job description for his work.

And you, seminarian of  Jesus Christ, are not  called to some type of generic youth activity when you go on internship; you are not called to be merely a “presence” among them, a provider of space for social activities but to convert them to their Lord and Savior,  to foster vocations to the priesthood and to find “movers and shakers” whom you can begin to form to change the world! 

This new paradigm will ensure that we raise thoroughbreds in the Catholic Church – priestly priests and evangelically-active laity. 

The priest and the seminarian take care of laying the keystones for the magnificent cathedral that each soul is called to be: spiritual direction (which can and should start informally in the earliest years through confession), excellent catechesis from childhood and comprehensive apologetics for teenagers.

Encourage lay people to work with you in the roles of organization  and discipline of groups, summer camps, retreats and other projects.  But the adult laity and the youth need the priest as  priest, above all as priest,  in his  triple role of leading, teaching, sanctifying.

When this happens, there will be new wings added on to seminaries, an explosion of holiness in the Church and the beginnings of a true counter-revolution in society!

[1] POPE PIUS XI, Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, 1935,  n.26.

[2] POPE PIUS XI, Ad Catholici Sacerdotii,  1935, n.24.

[3] CARDINAL RAYMOND BURKE, D.D., J.C.D., “Catholic Orthodoxy: Antidote against  the Culture of Death”, October 9th, 2010.