Psalm 42:1, “Like a deer thirsting for running water,” illustrates the soul touched by the grace of God. The enthusiastic catechist needs to be confident that God is already at work in the student. However, amid the increasing isolation of youth in the secular culture, it is easy to be less than confident.
The growing number of “nones” (those who identify with no formal religion) include those who have, at times, searched for the truth and found the Gospel wanting. Perhaps more typical are those youth who are less motivated to search and too ready to give a shrug and say, “whatever,” to what might be out of step with their culture. Underneath the friendly exterior of many youth are scars that they endure in isolation. These hurts stem from family rejection, the inability to sustain friendships, and most especially a technological isolation that places hope in the virtual reality of the Internet or gaming platforms. A growing number are tempted to suicide as a way to end despondency, isolation, and hopelessness. What the world presents, as the freedom to be whatever one wants to be, becomes the crucible for an addiction that becomes self-absorbing.
Yet, we catechists know what their underlying desire is: true and lasting happiness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church got it right by beginning with the topic of happiness. Beneath the surface of each young person we meet (and all people for that matter) we find a restless heart desiring to be satisfied.
The first lesson for a good catechist, therefore, is this: believe that God’s grace is flowing and uncovering a restless heart and a thirsting soul. One thing has not changed. Deep down we are built to thirst for truth, beauty, and goodness.
How do we awaken that thirst? I offer two pathways from my life and recent personal observations about how to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The first is the communal experience of the Gospel alive.
One entranceway to uncovering this thirst could be accompanying a group of students to a celebration of the Eucharist, or a time of adoration, or even a reflective tour of a beautiful church that turns into a pilgrimage of sorts. One of the dangers of our age is that we consider pre-evangelization (i.e., being with youth in a fun activity or even a service project) such an important phase that we never get to the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
A great example of this communal experience, rightly done, occurs at the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC), during which thousands of young people together experience an encounter with Jesus Christ. Typically, that experience grows beyond the experience of new friendships, as these youth attend celebrations of the Holy Eucharist, participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and have fitting opportunities for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. This is a communal experience that includes a strong proclamation of Jesus Christ and his Church. The beauty of this shared encounter with Jesus opens new horizons.
The second pathway is private and deeply personal. It is the catechist’s challenge for a student to take the initiative in the encounter with Jesus. I remember my eleventh grade religion teacher challenging us to read a chapter of a Gospel each day and to come to know Jesus Christ. I never recall her checking up to see who followed through, and so I don’t know if I was the only one or part of a great majority. However, I do know that the simple exercise, along with the recitation of the Holy Rosary, ushered me into an encounter with Christ.
Only after I entered the seminary and began to study theology did I begin to appreciate fully the encounter with Christ that I experienced five or six years earlier. For sure, there is no substitute for a catechist’s sincere witness of a joyful life and a simple, unencumbered witness to the encounter with Jesus that has made a difference in his or her life. After such a witness, issuing a challenge—such as the one from my eleventh-grade teacher—opens the path to a student’s private initiative, itself the working of grace. A good catechist can be confident that Christ will be at work now—and a decade to come—in the heart and soul of the person thirsting for more.
“Like a deer thirsting for running water” is the soul of the student whom you seek to catechize. Whether the person’s search is robust and full of questions or mostly dormant, the time-honored encounter with Jesus and his Gospel is alive through the flowing of God’s grace. We catechists seek to provide communal encounters as well as personal challenges for private initiatives to uncover that thirst for Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Most Reverend Joseph E. Kurtz, DD is the Archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky.
This article originally appeared on page 25 of the printed edition.
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