The Treasure We Give
With the smell of Domino’s pepperoni pizza in the air and the sound of girly giggles that had not quite settled down, a group of 50 or so high school students crowded in small groups on the carpet floor of the parish center on a Sunday night, ready for another catechetical lesson in the St. Gertrude youth ministry program. As a Freshman in high school, I would carpool with friends 40 minutes across town just to be a part of this group. It wasn’t my home parish, but the faith was alive and well at St. Gertrude, and a friend invited me to come and see.
On this particular night, after tummies were filled and icebreakers were done, we sat down for the weekly teaching from our youth minister and the conversation made its way to the topic of sin. The floor was opened for questions, and I raised my hand: “I don’t understand how the original sin of Adam and Eve could be passed down to all of us. It wasn’t our sin.” The youth minister gave an explanation that I’m sure was catechetically sound and thorough, but it didn’t stick. One, then another adult leader chimed in, hoping to explain in a way that would resonate. I felt bad. I knew I was asking a difficult question, and I really didn’t want to embarrass these nice people who welcomed me every week with pizza and side hugs and gave their Sunday nights to help me grow closer to God. Worse, I didn’t want to seem uncool in front of my youth group friends and draw attention to myself. I was starting to say it wasn’t a big deal and I didn’t need any more examples, when someone else spoke up.
It was Fr. Stephen, a Dominican friar who was assigned to the youth group as our chaplain. He had a quiet, kind demeanor; so when he spoke, I listened. He told me that God created humanity perfectly, like a priceless painting. Through sin, that painting was damaged. Parts of it were marred and torn, even missing. That same human nature was passed on to each of us, and while we did not commit the original sin of Adam and Eve, we are the heirs of that broken humanity. He finished explaining that it is Christ who redeems and restores us, once and for all through his death and resurrection, and in our daily living through the sacraments and grace.
It clicked. I understood.
Fourteen years later, I can still remember that youth night as a turning point in my faith. I always loved God, and I liked going to youth group with the funny youth minister, kind adults, and good friends. But on that day, by the grace of God, I came to believe that my faith had answers. I knew, in a way that I had not known before, that the teachings of the Catholic faith were true, and that it could stand even my most complicated questions and still provide an answer. Maybe it would not be as easy as finding an answer in the first place I looked, or even the second or third time I asked, but if I dug deep enough and found the right person to explain, there would always be an answer to what Catholics believe. My faith was relevant, and it was true. God had used the adults in my youth group to share parts of the truth with me, so that when he spoke through our chaplain, I would recognize the fullness of truth when I heard it proclaimed.
This was a moment of conversion for me that took place in the context of catechetical teaching, and I am forever grateful to Fr. Stephen for explaining Church doctrine to me, so I could open my heart to the Holy Spirit and come to believe. Let us have courage as catechists, knowing that we proclaim the Truth when we proclaim the faith, and those who seek the Lord will know the truth when they hear it.
It Wasn’t Me
A few years ago, in collaboration with the pastor, we decided that the 6th grade students would benefit from a reading of the Passion as we entered into the Lenten season. The plan was for the students to take the part of the crowd, while several of the adults and the pastor would assume the remaining roles. Fr. Tom was going to speak to the students after the reading to share his thoughts and insights. As the saying goes, “Man plans and God laughs.” Fr. Tom was able to be present for the Passion reading but was not able to stay to speak with the students, the task fell to me with only about one-hour worth of preparation time!
While I may be in the role of a catechetical leader, public speaking is still a challenge for me, especially knowing I was going to address 160 6th graders who really didn’t want to hear what I had to say. Not pleased with the notes I had and still unsure of exactly what I wanted to say to the students, my prayers became desperate pleas to the Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit, please guide my words, tell me what you want me to share with these students so that they can truly understand your love for them. A sudden calm came over me as I put it in God’s hands.
Following the reading I approached the ambo, intending to speak to the students about Jesus’ sacrifice and why we make small sacrifices during Lent. With one more plea to the Holy Spirit to guide my words, I began to speak.
I spoke to the students about the truly deep love that Jesus has for them. Going through the story of the Passion and helping the students to insert themselves into the story. Drawing upon the value that pre-teens place on friendship, I began by explaining how hurt Jesus must’ve been when one of his good friends betrayed him and asked the question “have you ever betrayed a friend?” How lonely it must’ve been when his best friend Peter, out of fear, denied him and asked the students to think how they would feel if their best friends turned their back on them. I had the attention of the students.
At this point, I felt the Holy Spirit guiding my words again. I began to explain the Passion and Crucifixion in terms of Jesus’ humanity. The physical description of the Passion—what it was like for Jesus, how it physically affected him—truly touched the students. I found myself not using the typical “church” words of Passion and Crucifixion but rather torture and murder to describe what Our Lord suffered for us. That struck me! I hadn’t thought about it in those terms before.
I reminded the students that Jesus, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, did not have to suffer but chose to because he loves us and wanted to redeem us! As he was hanging, dying on the cross, he was thinking of them because he loves them. I had tears in my eyes realizing the amount of love Our Lord has for each one of us.
As I finished my presentation, I was in awe of what the Holy Spirit had done. That talk was not what I had planned at all. I looked down at my presentation notes and realized I never used them! By allowing the Holy Spirit to step in, my teaching was not my own but was from the One who sent me (cf. Jn 7:16). His words were so much more profound!
I know that God used me as an instrument in that moment. He gave me the words he wanted the students to hear. I have had several students approach me over the years to tell me “Miss Carrie, every year when we read the Passion I remember how much Jesus loves us because of what you told us.” I remind them, it is not what I said, but what God has told us and what he did for us because he loves us so deeply and so completely. I am humbled that God chose me to reach those students.
Commack, New York
This article originally appeared on pages 34-35 of the printed edition. Public domain image from Pxhere.com.