They Ended Up Teaching Me About Life, and Faith

A couple weeks ago David Brooks wrote an astonishingly un-self-aware column in which he dismissed those who wrote college essays entitled “I Went to Panama to Teach the Natives About Math but They Ended Up Teaching Me About Life.”  At the risk of drawing Mr. Brooks’ contempt, this is one such blog post.

My story begins two years ago, during a winter that was sadly short on snow but heavy on politics.  I was a new volunteer with Youth Enrichment Services, an organization that, among other things, takes low-income kids out of Boston and teaches them to ski in the  mountains around New England.  The season begins each year with a weekend in which professionals teach volunteers how to become a ski instructors.

As it happened, my training weekend coincided with the final days of the New Hampshire primary, and the Ron Paul campaign was staying at our hotel.  When I went down for breakfast Saturday morning, I noticed his son Rand Paul sitting all by himself.  I have never been accused of being shy, so I approached the Kentucky senator and asked if I could join him.  I’m certain he wanted to tell me to get lost, but his father’s name was on the ballot just a few days later, and so he graciously agreed.

I’ve told that story a few times since, and most recently last weekend while on the bus with another group of kids from Cristo Rey Boston High School.  Sitting next to me was the fulltime AmeriCorps volunteer at the school who organized the trip.  While getting suited up in the lodge, it occurred to me that the state from which she originally hailed had some very prominent citizens with the same last name.  I listed a couple of them, and asked if she was related.

Low and behold, the girl I was regaling with my story about breakfast with a United States Senator was the daughter of one.  She had eaten at the White House with the president of the United States, so my sharing some stale French toast sticks with a junior senator in the lobby of a Hampton Inn didn’t impress her much.  I felt a bit sheepish, but had I not made the connection on my own I’m sure she never would have told me.

Her co-worker in the seat behind us was apparently laughing at me while I told the story, but he didn’t know that her father serves in the Senate until recently either.  Having lived in Washington D.C. for four years I know the propensity of many there to drop names, so not only did I get a healthy serving of humble pie, I saw her model the virtue of humility beautifully.

When we got back at the end of the day, this same co-worker (also a volunteer, but with the Urban Catholic Teacher Corps) announced to the kids that he was going to Mass at a parish up the street, and invited them all to join him.  Not only did he give the time and address, however, he really talked up the Mass.  I was planning on going to my home parish and hoping to get there in time to catch the Gospel, but after listening to him I was sold.  As I was soon to find out, he wasn’t lying when he said how good it would be.

The priest was phenomenal, if long-winded. The music was great, and the pews were full of college students and young adults who were reading—and even singing!—along.  It was a great experience, and I think I may have found what I recently said I was looking for in a faith community.   My big takeaway from the affair, however, was the witness of this teacher on the bus and the way he evangelized his students.  I was the only one who took him up on the offer, but every one of those kids saw a young, attractive, fun guy who was letting his candle shine brightly and spreading the joy of the Gospel.

I got up that morning expecting to teach a group of city kids how to ski.  To use Brooks’ cliché title, I ended up learning far more.  I joked with the students that I was the greatest ski instructor they ever had.  As I am the only ski instructor they’ve ever had, it was technically true.  By the end of the day, however, it was clear to me that whatever I may have done for these kids pales in comparison to what these teachers do for them every day, even on Sundays when they are not in school.

Is Pope Francis Revitalizing The Catholic Youth?

HuffPost Live had a very thoughtful discussion on young people, Pope Francis, and the Church earlier today. The discussion featured Rev. Paul Raushenbush, Jess Montoya, Christopher White, and Jonathan Lewis. Lewis, the Coordinator of Evangelization and Young Adult Initiatives for the Archdiocese of Washington, recently wrote one of our most popular guest posts: The Danger of Pope Francis. The full discussion can be viewed here.

Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Pot and Jackpots by Ross Douthat: “There are significant differences in the ways gambling and pot have won America….But both have been made possible by the same trend in American attitudes: the rise of a live-and-let-live social libertarianism, the weakening influence of both religious conservatism and liberal communitarianism, the growing suspicion of moralism in public policy. And both, in different ways, illustrate the potential problems facing a culture pervaded by what the late sociologist Robert Bellah called ‘expressive individualism’ and allergic to any restrictions on what individuals choose to do.”

The Downside of Playing Hard to Get by Anna Sutherland: “So it would seem that playing hard-to-get has its rewards in the relationship market. But that doesn’t mean we should all adopt it as a strategy: deceit and manipulation seem an unlikely path to a happy relationship characterized by honesty and openness on both sides.”

My Favorite Jesuit? by Paul Brian Campbell SJ, People for Others: “We are, I’m sure, all familiar with Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier, but how many of you know another founder of the Jesuits: Pierre Favre?”

Look to Disraeli, Conservatives by R. R. Reno: “Right now liberalism seems to have the upper hand, especially in culture. Most people want what they’re offering, which is greater space to be a free actor in our personal inventions of sexual identity, marriage, and family. But by my reading of the signs of the times people want more than that. They want freedom, yes, but they also want solidarity, which in the cultural politics of our time means an enduring marriage and functional family.”

Whittaker Chambers Versus Ayn Rand by Cass R. Sunstein: “Chambers goes so far as to link Rand with Karl Marx. Both, he says, are motivated by a kind of materialism, in which people’s happiness lies not with God or with anything spiritual, and much less with an appreciation of human limitations, but only with the use of their ‘own workaday hands and ingenious brain.’”

Syria Goes Hungry by New York Times: “The experts warn that if the crisis continues into the winter, deaths from hunger and illness could begin to dwarf deaths from violence, which has already killed well over 100,000 people, and if the deprivation lasts longer, a generation of Syrians risks stunted development.”

Make room for young people by Michael O’Loughlin: “The way to prevent that crisis from happening is to bring a bit of Silicon Valley into the church, inviting young people — especially those in their teens and 20s — into meaningful positions of leadership and responsibility. For both the church and young people, it would be a ‘win-win,’ at once evangelizing and strengthening the faith of young leaders and increasing the vitality, creativity and energy of the church.”

Slavery Isn’t a Thing of the Past by Nicholas Kristof: “The United States is home to about 60,000 people who can fairly be called modern versions of slaves, according to a new Global Slavery Index released last month by the Walk Free Foundation, which fights human trafficking.”

The high prices of living in poverty By Kevin Clarke: “This ‘poverty tax’ extends to virtually all aspects of the lives of America’s low-income families. Financial services and mortgages cost more for poor people. Check-cashing, rent-to-own, and payday loan operations skim vast sums from the poor. And a new study reports that the physical and psychological costs of being poor are surprisingly high.”

What You Can Do by John Carr: “Sacrifice for others and priority for the poor may be politically incorrect, but they are religious obligations.”

$10 Minimum Wage Proposal Has Growing Support From White House by NY Times: “President Obama, the official continued, supports the Harkin-Miller bill, also known as the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, from its current $7.25.”

The world must unite to save Central African Republic from catastrophe by NY Times: “We are in a delicate situation in the Central African Republic, and the tension is mounting. There is a terrifying, real threat of sectarian conflict.”

Fishers of Men and Women, Go to Those You Wish to Catch

I’d like to think that when my now-brother-in-law asked me to stand by his side at his wedding it was to show off what a good looking family he was marrying into, and that my sister wanted me to offer the Prayers of the Faithful to display what an excellent speaking voice I have.  Sadly, even in my wildest moments of delusional self-aggrandizement, I can’t make either of those claims.

I can’t even though they could have gotten any warm body to fill these roles and picked me instead.  They didn’t, and for the same reason they didn’t go to a wedding chapel in Vegas, or a beach in the Bahamas, or any number of other places to say their vows.  They picked the parish my siblings and I received all our other sacraments in, asked the pastor to officiate, and included only siblings in the wedding party.  Why? Because, unlike the Elvis impersonator they could have found on the Strip somewhere, we were all relevant to their lives and their marriage.

Too many of our fellow Millennials fall away from the Church not because of any major disagreement on Church teachings, or because they no longer believe in God, but because they do not see any relevance to what the Church has to offer them in their daily lives.  This was hammered home for me over the summer when I was away on vacation and listening to a white-haired priest try to apply the lessons of the Gospel to modern life.

His overall message was fine, but in the course of the homily, after talking about phone calls and emails, he said, “I think the word used today is ‘texting.’”  I sat in the back thinking to myself: Is this guy for real?  Did I cross over the Cape Cod Canal or back in time to 1998?  Is texting really such a novel technology that you are unfamiliar with how to even talk about it?  It is no wonder that I was the youngest person in the church who wasn’t driven there in the back a minivan.

The reason I was in a church at all that weekend can be traced directly back to my junior year of high school.  As a sophomore I made my confirmation, not because I wanted to, but because it was what I was supposed to do.  In that sense, it wasn’t much different than going to biology class.

Then junior year, a new parish priest came in with a wave of energy and swept us all up in it.  He instituted a LifeTeen program and got hundreds of teenagers to participate by running programs we wanted to attend, played contemporary music instead of songs composed either by Mozart or for hippies, and consistently preached about issues we faced every day in high school.  Now, more years later than I care to admit, the program is still going strong.  It has lasted all these years because it has remained relevant to kids’ lives, even as times have changed.

After high school I went on to college and found a community there that was not only engaging academically, but uplifting spiritually.  I wasn’t particularly active in campus ministry, but I think a large part of that had to do with the general sense of Catholicity that pervaded the school.  My faith remained relevant throughout what I still refer to as the best four years of my life.

It has been more of a struggle post-college, however.  The Archdiocese of Boston does a pretty good job of putting on regional events, but I haven’t found a parish near me that does much in the way of young adult ministry.

When Jesus called Peter and Andrew, he told them that he would make them fishers of men.  We need more fishers of men, and fishers of women, young people, CEOs, electricians, and every other demographic out there.  However, as any good fisherman will tell you, you need to go where the fish are.  You can’t bring your nets to the desert and expect to bring in a haul.

To catch us, the Church needs to offer a vision of Catholic Christianity that has bearing on our lives. My parish has a number of ministries, including special masses for children and teens, but nothing for young professionals like myself.

The Church needs to teach us, challenge us, inspire us.  Give us a reason to get out of our beds on Sunday mornings.  Better yet, recognize that we might be hungover on Sunday morning and in no mood to be listening to screaming babies at the family mass.  Instead, give us a liturgy a little later in the day with music composed in this century and a homily that speaks to the issues we are facing in our lives.  And, if it isn’t too much to ask, try not to sound too baffled at the latest fad floating around on the interwebs, or whatever it is you kids call that thing with the computers.

Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

7 Questions: keeping college students Catholic by Michael J. O’Loughlin: “Katie Diller: Young adults are filled with passion and they are thirsty to live radically. Atheism can seem radical to students who might be shrugging off a flavorless experience of growing up Catholic. We have to talk about the mystery of faith in our lives. Pope Francis keeps encouraging us to go out of ourselves, to live mysterious lives in solidarity with the poor. Encounters with that mystery of love and self-sacrifice will always inspire curiosity about the mystery of Jesus and the Church.”

The Spirituality of Sports Fanaticism by Michael Rossmann, SJ, TJP: “But what makes something like the Olympics so beautiful, however, is that it unites people from around the world – athletes and fans both. Even if we might cheer in a special way for our own country, we can all stand in amazement at someone like Usain Bolt. I once watched the World Cup with a group of people from thirteen of the 32 teams that played that year, and while we would give each other a hard time if our countries competed, we were united in watching this display, even when we were not united by language, religion, sex, occupation, or personality.”

Syria crisis: Incendiary bomb victims ‘like the walking dead’ by BBC News: “A BBC team inside Syria filming for Panorama has witnessed the aftermath of a fresh horrific incident – an incendiary bomb dropped onto a school playground in the north of the country – which has left scores of children with napalm-like burns over their bodies.”

Catholic schools provide a beacon of hope to Washington families by Cardinal Donald Wuerl: “Our faith can never be relegated to just an hour inside church on Sunday. As Pope Francis has urged us, we need to “go out” and bring Christ’s love and hope to our communities and our world.”

Francis’ comforting phone call to Argentinean rape victim Alejandra Pereyra: “The Pope’s telephone call at 15:50 local time on Sunday 25 August caught Alejandra Pereyra di Villa del Rosario – who lives in the Province of Cordoba, Argentina’s second biggest city – completely by surprise.”

Our fantasy: A Congress that gets stuff done by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein: “A little more than a year ago, we published a book about American politics — and particularly Congress — titled “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” In our book and in these pages, we lamented the ideological divides in Washington, which had become almost tribal in nature, and the skewed nature of political polarization, emphasizing a Republican Party gone off the rails.  Unfortunately, little has happened in the time since to lift our spirits.”

Five myths about millennials by Mark Glassman: “Millennials also set loftier social goals than prior generations. Each year, a survey conducted by the University of Michigan asks high school seniors to rate their life’s ambitions. Data compiled by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University, shows that millennials rated ‘contribute to society,’ ‘correct inequalities’ and ‘be a leader in the community’ higher than baby boomers did when they were younger.”

Francis and the Very New Evangelism by Thomas C. Fox, NCR: “The Very New Evangelism preached by Francis is simple, practical stuff. It’s about what it means to live the beatitudes in today’s life.”

How Dr. King Shaped My Work in Economics By Joseph Stiglitz: “Much of my scholarship and public service in recent decades — including my service at the Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton administration, and then at the World Bank — has been devoted to the reduction of poverty and inequality. I hope I’ve lived up to the call Dr. King issued a half-century ago.”

Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

A Policy of Rape Continues by Nicholas Kristof: “We’re at the 10-year-anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in Darfur, yet, instead of subsiding, it has been amplified this year. Just in the first five months of 2013, according to the United Nations, another 300,000 people in Darfur have been driven from their homes — and untold numbers killed or raped.”

Pro-Baby, but Stingy With Money to Support Them by Eduardo Porter: “But though American families may have adapted better than others to women’s march into the labor force, the United States lags far behind in providing the government support that makes it easier for many couples to start a family.”

Pope decries ‘dealers of death,’ opposes drug legalization by John Allen: “In his most pointed bit of political commentary since arriving in Brazil two days ago, Pope Francis this afternoon blasted narco-traffickers as ‘dealers of death’ and came out against trends in Latin America towards the legalization of drugs.”

Vatican Radio: Homily at Marian Shrine at Aparecida: “It is true that nowadays, to some extent, everyone, including our young people, feels attracted by the many idols which take the place of God and appear to offer hope: money, success, power, pleasure. Often a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people leads them to seek satisfaction in these ephemeral idols.”

What Will Happen to the Other 367,000 Babies Born Monday?  by Amanda Marcotte: “Of the nonroyal 367,000 babies born Monday, UNICEF estimates that 24,000 will probably not live to see their fifth birthday. Most of the 24,000 children under  5 we lose a day around the world die from preventable causes: diarrhea, malaria, neonatal infection, pneumonia, preterm delivery, or lack of oxygen at birth.”

Pope Francis & Springtime by Michael Sean Winters: “It is this quality of Pope Francis, his simplicity, his ability to sense what ordinary people are thinking and feeling and to speak to them in ways that they understand, this is what has created the sense that it is springtime for the Church again. It is his awareness that if you are going to speak about poverty, it is best not to be spotted in a Mercedes, sit on a golden throne, and dress up in Baroque, jewel-laden attire.”

Reweaving the circle of protection by Kathy Saile and Galen Carey: “It’s been more than 140 days since sequestration went into effect, cutting $84 billion across the board from government programs this year. It may be difficult to comprehend the effects of that number. However, it is not difficult to comprehend that a child who is undernourished this year could have learning difficulties for the rest of her life—which will hurt her ability to earn enough money to provide for herself and her future children. It is not difficult to comprehend that a father in South Sudan who needlessly dies from AIDS this year because of reduced access to treatments will leave his family in dire straits. It is not difficult to comprehend that an elderly person on a fixed income in the Midwest will sit hungry and cold in a dingy apartment next winter because of cuts to essential assistance.”

Pope Francis: Arrival Speech in Rio, Vatican Radio: “Our generation will show that it can realize the promise found in each young person when we know how to give them space; how to create the material and spiritual conditions for their full development; how to give them a solid basis on which to build their lives; how to guarantee their safety and their education to be everything they can be; how to pass on to them lasting values that make life worth living; how to give them a transcendent horizon for their thirst for authentic happiness and their creativity for the good; how to give them the legacy of a world worthy of human life; and how to awaken in them their greatest potential as builders of their own destiny, sharing responsibility for the future of everyone.”

Pope Francis to Brazilian Bishops: Are we still a Church capable of warming hearts?: “A relentless process of globalization, an often uncontrolled process of urbanization, have promised great things. Many people have been captivated by the potential of globalization, which of course does contain positive elements. But many also completely overlook its darker side: the loss of a sense of life’s meaning, personal dissolution, a loss of the experience of belonging to any “nest” whatsoever, subtle but relentless violence, the inner fragmentation and breakup of families, loneliness and abandonment, divisions, and the inability to love, to forgive, to understand, the inner poison which makes life a hell, the need for affection because of feelings of inadequacy and unhappiness, the failed attempt to find an answer in drugs, alcohol, and sex, which only become further prisons.”

State Department seeks to broaden religious reach by Elizabeth Tenety, Washington Post: “The State Department announced this week the creation of its first office dedicated to outreach to the global faith community and religious leaders. The project, born in part of recommendations by its working group on religion and foreign policy, will be headed by Shaun Casey, a United Methodist member and professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.”

Why millennials are leaving the church by Rachel Held Evans, CNN Belief Blog: “Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances. In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church…”

Pope Francis: “Go, do not be afraid, and serve”: “Today, in the light of the word of God that we have heard, what is the Lord saying to us? Three simple ideas: Go, do not be afraid, and serve.”