Wednesday, August 17, 2011

When Faith Grows Young

At the end of this week, Pope Benedict will meet in Madrid with an anticipated 1.2 million people, the overwhelming majority of them young. John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, wrote a typically insightful article this week about World Youth Day, the triennial Catholic mega-church gathering that thrills believers and stymies naysayers. He focuses on the ramifications for society and the Church, rather than on the young participants themselves, and frames the event within the precarious socio-political-economic climate throughout Europe in general and Spain in particular. While he might have every reason to hope for the youth, he is cautiously optimistic about what the celebration portends on the social and ecclesial levels.

The theme for this year’s event is “Planted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith” (Col 2:7). One of the cardinal messages that will be stressed is the at core of what Paul himself preached: Christian faith is not a set of beliefs; it’s something active within us, not something we statically have. It’s not centered on doctrines about God, but on God, revealed definitively in Jesus Christ. We don’t believe some thing, but Some One. Even more, faith is responsive. We don’t just sit around and believe; God “believes” enough in us to call us into being, and we respond by believing in God, trusting God with our lives, our selves. It’s all about relationship. No one, not even a theologian, can have a bona fide love affair with a teaching. What we authentically believe translates into how we live because of the One we live for.

Joanne (left) and her sister, Jolene
That’s life changing. It’s an experience that one young woman in Hong Kong describes in a letter she recently sent to family and friends. Seventeen-year-old Joanne Pong had skipped her senior year of high school and was back home in Hong Kong after her first year at Whittier College, just outside Los Angeles, where she is majoring in environmental science. Wondering what to do with her summer, she volunteered for the World Wildlife Fund. Good as it was for the energetic Joanne, it wasn’t enough. Prompted by a suggestion from her mother Cheryl, who became a Pauline Cooperator in June, she decided to raise funds for the quake stricken Daughters of St. Paul in Sendai, Japan, from among relatives and from Cheryl’s friends.

Joanne wrote to them:
“I got to know the Daughters of St Paul  in Hong Kong 2 summers ago in their book shop and their warehouse. During that summer, I helped to catalog books, shared lunches with them, and we spent a lot of time together. In that period, I learnt their way of life in their vocation of spreading the Gospel through the media. They have a small book shop in Mongkok, Hong Kong, and they visit churches on weekends to bring good books and AV to the people. They also hold Book Fairs in schools. I too participated in one of those Book Fairs, it was an unforgettable experience. I developed a bond with them and know that if they were in the same situation as the sisters in Japan are in right now, I would hope that there are people reaching out to them.”
Joanne and Cheryl sat down at the computer and sent out 150 emails, with that message included. They referred people to the Pauline Faithways post of March 16, “How To Help Japan.” (No doubt due to their publicity, that post is the second most read individual Pauline post to date. For a blog that gets only about 250 to 300 readers per week, that’s impressive.) Donors sent emails to the two women pledging their contributions, and then the contributions would follow—checks or bank drafts made out to the Daughters of St. Paul. The amount would then be given to the Pauline sisters there in Hong Kong, who coordinated the transfer of funds to Japan and issued receipts to donors for tax purposes.

Cheryl celebrates Christmas
with the Daughters of St. Paul

Sixty-four relatives and friends—almost half of those contacted—responded, so that in the space of only two months, the “Pong Team” raised $18,500 U.S.!

In true fundraising spirit, Joanne promised in her thank-you letters that donors would be prayed for and that she would keep them informed about the progress of the sisters, presumably even from her college dorm in Whittier.

The August 1 issue of The NonProfit Times ran an article entitled, “The Next Generation,”  which examines the phenomenon of volunteerism and fundraising by young people, some of them children. Susan J. Ellis, president of Energize, Inc., applauds an attitude toward young—and older—volunteers that looks at their capacity and creativity rather than their age or experience, as a gauge for involvement: “Volunteering allows people to rise to the level of their ability, not their resumé.” *

The Pongs: Jolene, Joanne, Cheryl, and Wai Leung

When the fire of faith is added to that drive, it becomes an evangelizing experience, both for those who are approached as well as for those who ask in the cause of the Gospel. What impresses me also is the way in which some of the young awaken to the experience of volunteerism and to a lived faith. That is, based on their association with people of faith, they either make an existing initiative their own or organize one themselves. In Joanne’s case, she discovered, met, God in a new and personal way through the sisters she worked with. Because of her upbringing, she already valued the Gospel and she recognized lives of faith when she encountered them, but her experience of the Church’s faith was now real to her and her choice of the Church’s values was her own.

When it comes to us, her witness causes us to ask ourselves if we couldn’t be doing more than we are. At the very least, could we add just a little more love and a little less griping to what we already do?

Whatever the immediate consequences of World Youth Day for society or the Church, the utter concreteness of rubbing shoulders with hundreds of thousands of young believers who struggle to make sense of their lives and their faith, plus the chance to share for a couple of hours the same turf as the Pastor of their universal Church, cannot but trigger within individual young people a desire to take something of that back into their utterly concrete lives. If they can plug into the sacramental life of the Church, the “source and summit of Christian life,” their faith-in-practice will connect them also with all believers in a grace-filled way. Their spiritual expression may not be the exact replica of their parents’ faith-life in all its particulars, but it will be authentically Catholic and transformative because they will be in a vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

I offer you this prayer of Blessed James Alberione, SSP, so that these days do make a world of difference to them and those they love:
“Faith is a gift of God and the root of every good. O Mary, obtain for them a lively, firm, and active faith, faith that saves and that produces saints, faith in the Church, in the Gospel, and in eternal life. Amen.”
* Reprinted with permission, The NonProfit Times, August 1, 2011.

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