Forming Youth as Civilization-Builders

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With a Catholic Vision

“The view implicit in my education” wrote  Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited, “was that the basic narrative of Christianity had long been exposed as a myth, and that opinion was now divided as to whether its ethical teaching was of present value, a division in which the main weight went against it: religion was a hobby which some people professed and others did not; at the best it was slightly ornamental, at the worst it was the province of “complexes” and “inhibitions” – catchwords of the decade – and of the intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity attributed to it for centuries. No one had ever suggested to me that these quaint observances expressed a coherent philosophical system and intransigent historical claims”

To communicate this “coherent philosophical system and intransigent historical claims” is –under grace – the great program for the formation of creative Catholic minorities. By such a strong intellectual formation in catechetics, apologetics and a general Catholic culture Catholics will be equipped  to live out their obligations stemming from the Sacrament of Confirmation and ready to confront the monster of the “Dictatorship of Relativism” which, though daunting in its massive size and brute strength is quite vulnerable in one point: its tiny brain. Let us not forget that we stand with the divinely revealed truths about God and man but we must use the very best tools at hand for  explaining them: the classic perennial philosophy and theology  found in the great masters like Saints Augustine and Bonaventure but above all in St. Thomas Aquinas  along with valuable modern contributions of thinkers like Etienne Gilson,  Dietrich von Hildebrand, Romano Guardini and Blessed John Henry Newman.  A professor who has made classical philosophy and theology accessible to youth with remarkable pedagogy, wit and ease of style is Peter Kreeft.

Spiritual Direction is another important method for forming saintly children and youth. When a confessor applies his knowledge of personality types, character formation and classic asceticism  to the guidance of young souls, he foresees the minefields  each one may hit during teen years and  gives them all they need to become saintly Savios, Gorettis and Frascatis. If enough priests do this then the fields of the Church will become golden with the harvest of priestly and consecrated vocations. For there is never a shortage of vocations: only a shortage  of Catholics!

The priest can also encourage the formation of groups of Catholic youth committed to the study of apologetics, Catholic social doctrine, debating and journalism with connected outreach activities such as pro-life work, debates in local schools and universities, door-to-door evangelization at home and abroad, participation in political parties youth sections and lobbying groups.

Enthusiastic to propose the Faith to Non-Catholics

Recently beatified youth such as Blessed Ivan Merz of Croatia and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati have shown how youth can lead others to the Church. Pier Giorgio had a fellowship around him who light-heartedly called themselves  “The Shady Characters”  but who were led by a light-hearted leader who knew how to be deadly serious when it came to guiding his companions into serious conversations about the Faith, prayer and Catholic political involvement during their outings to the mountains.

Motivate the youth to present the Faith to others by helping them to see how the Faith is the answer to the great sufferings of life because it is the answer to the great questions of eternity.  Then they will start off groups that will attract so many intelligent youth who want to hear the comprehensive message of Catholicism. I remember the first words of  two non-Catholic students who turned up to a meeting of a newly founded Catholic university group: “We came because we heard that here you get answers”

Ready to Battle for the True, the Good and the Beautiful

Priests, as officers of the Ecclesia militans,  must alert youth to the status quo of society: They are no longer living in Western Civilization with its core of Christian culture but in “enemy-occupied territory” under a “dictatorship” intent on social engineering through re-defining marriage, family and even human life itself. We must renounce this rather cosy but naïve feeling that somehow we are still a majority in society and accept our status of a minority under siege – but without a siege-mentality. “Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage” (C.S.Lewis). This is a starting point for forming youth to live out their role received in the Sacrament of Confirmation as members of the Ecclesia Militans and builders of a Christian civilization.

While  giving lectures to youth of all ages  I have often noticed a certain “flash of light” appear in the eyes of some of them when they hear an explanation of the contemporary culture war. You almost hear them shout “Eureka! So that’s why!” as they think of  all the times on the TV, in the classroom, in conversations, in magazines, on the internet, in advertising that they have heard their Faith subtly or overtly attacked. They then seem to breathe a sigh of relief because the hardest part of their ordeal has been taken away: confusion. In a mental situation reminiscent of the hero in George Orwell’s 1984 the youth had been accepting the secularized character of their society as natural and gradually coming to consider their Faith as unnatural, acquiring an inferiority complex as Catholics. Once they came to realize where they were in history, the rest was logical: “Why, we’re in a war, a culture war! What else can I expect but attacks from the other side? So now I have to defend myself and win others over by arming myself in prayer and intellect in order to build a civilization of love”

A priest who is unwilling to speak to his people “negatively” about the “Dictatorship of Relativism” and its culture of death is the equivalent of an officer who leads his soldiers into battle without masks, ignoring information received that the enemy is using poisoned gas.

How could the Church in Poland and in other communist-controlled countries have survived if it had not been led by men like Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński who clearly laid out the “them-us” relationship that existed? Is that against Christian love? Absolutely not! Christ told us to love our enemies but in order to love them you first have to recognize that you have them!   Why did the Master speak about his followers being as “shrewd as serpents and simple as doves” (Mt.10:16).  The priests who were loyal to the integrity of the Faith in communist countries built a “Resistance Church”, the priests who caved in to the enemy built a “Peace Priests movement”. As Archbishop Chaput  said recently:

That brings me to my third and final point today: We live in a time when the Church is called to be a believing community of resistance. We need to call things by their true names. We need to fight the evils we see. And most importantly, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that by going along with the voices of secularism and de-Christianization we can somehow mitigate or change things. Only the Truth can set men free. We need to be apostles of Jesus Christ and the Truth he incarnates.[6]

This sense of being part of  the Ecclesia Militans, of a “resistance movement” is almost connatural to children and youth  because they have a natural sense of truth, justice and goodness:

A child’s instinct is almost perfect in the matter of fighting”, wrote G.K. Chesterton, “ a child always stands for the good militarism as against the bad. The child’s hero is always the man or boy who defends himself suddenly and splendidly against aggression. The child’s hero is never the man or boy who attempts by his mere personal force to extend his mere personal influence. In all boys’ books, in all boys’ conversation, the hero is one person and the bully the other. That combination of the hero and bully in one, which people now call the Strong Man or the Superman, would be simply unintelligible to any schoolboy….

But really to talk of this small human creature, who never picks up an umbrella without trying to use it as a sword, who will hardly read a book in which there is no fighting, who out of the Bible itself generally remembers the “bluggy” [bloody] parts, who never walks down the garden without imagining himself to be stuck all over with swords and daggers–to take this human creature and talk about the wickedness of teaching him to be military, seems rather a wild piece of humour. He has already not only the tradition of fighting, but a far manlier and more genial tradition of fighting than our own. No; I am not in favour of the child being taught militarism. I am in favour of the child teaching it. [7]

By encouraging them to read, according to their age-level and reading ability, the lives of the saints as well as novels and sagas like The Lord of the Rings, their imaginations will become radiant with the Christian paradigm of absolute truth and goodness – and of the need to defend them.

In Love With  Grace and Prayer

By 20, he was a warrior, wise beyond his years and loved by thousands – and  he was king, king of France. Yet this king had an unusual way of signing the official documents: “Louis of Poissy”. Everyone knew that Poissy was an  insignificant village  but for Louis it was the place he loved  because it was there he had been baptized. And for King Louis IX, one of the wisest statesmen the world has ever known, sanctifying grace was more important than his kingdom.

By fostering love for the sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and Confession, youth will build their souls into sturdy ships onto which others can be hauled ashore to safety.  They will forge an iron determination to resist the onslaughts through mass-media of the surrounding intellectual tyranny. Instead of Catholic youth drowning amid the waves of secularism in universities,  they will ask themselves on crossing the university threshold: “So how am I going to make this place more Christian?” and at the hour of career-decision: “Lord, what do you want me to do to make this world a civilization of love founded on your Gospel?”

Let us teach them a love for the  sacramentals and traditional devotions. Youth want to touch, feel, wear the faith; they want to see it in color, in sculpture, in paintings, in beautiful art, vestments, music, altars, arches; they want the crucifix, scapulars, the Miraculous Medal, first Fridays and novenas, pilgrimages, statues and candles and votive offerings. Let’s give it all to them! Such was the message of a book, La Fede Dei Piccoli [The Faith of the Little Ones] just published  by a young woman in her twenties, internationally educated and equally at home in New York, Munich, London or Rome, Princess Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis.

Whose Heroes are the Saints

Another way is to introduce them to the lives of the saints, especially the young ones, as well as to heroic groups of Christians such as those who resisted totalitarian regimes, for instance the White Rose movement in Nazi Germany.

The young Pier Giorgio Frassati chose an additional first name “Girolamo” in honor of the austere Dominican priest, Girolamo Savonarola, who preached conversion to Florence in the 1400s: “I am a fervent admirer of this friar”, he wrote to a friend, “who died as a saint at the stake”. By encouraging them to read books and view movies on the lives of saints – and possibly by having them organize cine-forums with such movies for the rest of the parish or school– you will have given them heroes by whom they measure the models offered by secular society.

Forming Parents and Teachers

Does a man ever forget seeing his father kneel at night  to pray or his mother round up the children to pray a decade of the rosary or a teacher explain to twelve year olds why God exists?

Therefore a very special place should go for the training of parents and teachers. Encourage family prayer such as prayers before meals and the family rosary; revive the great custom of family reading or at least of individual reading of the Bible and the lives of the saints. Encourage parents to teach the catechism and prayers to their children;  to spend more time on family outings and games rather than on television and internet. Set up parent-support groups; teach them to make use of groups like EWTN , Catholic magazines and  websites; Catholic summer camps and Christian family environments.

[1] JEAN-MARIE LUSTIGER, Le Choix de Dieu. Entretiens avec JEAN-LOUIS MISSIKA et DOMINIQUE WOLTON, Editions De Fallois, Paris, 1987, p.27-28. My translation. This book is also available in Spanish: La Elección de Dios, Ed. Planeta, Barcelona 1989.

[2] C.S.LEWIS, Surprised by Joy: The Early Shape of My Life,  p.47.

[3] JOHN HENRY NEWMAN, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Part III, Ch.1.

[4] HENRI GHÉON, The Secret of the Cure d’Ars, Longmans, Green and Co., New York, 1929, p.57-58.

[5] http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/chi_siamo

[6] ARCHBISHOP CHARLES CHAPUT, Living within the Truth: Religious Liberty and Catholic Mission in the New Order of the World, Address to the Fifteenth Symposium for the Canon Law Association of Slovakia, August 25, 2010. See http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1344457

[7] G. K.CHESTERTON in a magazine article of 1906.