Earlier this week, I participated in an editorial meeting here at Pauline Books and Media. One of the first things we did was split into groups and discuss the responses to a survey we had sent out a couple weeks ago. About 200 people were kind enough to respond.
Even though we were reflecting together upon answers from grown-ups, I couldn't help but think about children. You see, one of the biggest takeaways from the survey was this: even though almost all of the respondents went to Mass daily or on Sundays, prayed before Jesus in the Eucharist in adoration chapels, read the Bible and said the rosary, there was an overwhelming sense of powerlessness before the forces at work in the world and history.
I was thinking about what had changed in our society that may have contributed to this experience of real suffering on the part of those who responded to the surveys. I am sure if I met them I would see a smile on their faces as they hurried from one thing to the next, but yet within...within there is this deep uncertainty.
The question I want to pose to you today is this: how do we build "bridges" to help the children in our families and religious education classes and schools experience the power of the "religious" world in the "real" world? How can they experience the power of God's presence and promise and love in the very midst of the uncertainty and struggles of their lives. In fact, how can we discover there is only ONE world, which we have unfortunately divided in our minds between religion over there and my life in the world over here…and it is a world permeated with the divine.
One of these "bridges" we can see the story of St. Onesimus, probably the least known of the saints. He appears in the letter of St. Paul to Philemon. Onesimus was a slave. He stole from his master and ran away, seeking protection from St. Paul who was in prison at the time. Now, here's the "bridge"--St. Paul helped Onesimus deal with his very difficult and scary situation by befriending him, helping him to see that he was a free man in Christ and a fellow-slave with Paul of Christ the true and eternal King and Master. Onesimus learned about his true worth as a human being created by God and saved by Jesus Christ, and he learned from Paul who was in prison for what he believed, to have courage to do what was right. I can just imagine St. Paul trying to calm Onesimus down every time he thought about returning to his master, where there was a very real possibility of being put to death. Paul then stepped in and sent Onesimus back to Philemon with a letter that reminded Philemon how much he owed Paul. He explained that Onesimus was now his very dear friend...and, by the way, Paul would be super grateful if Philemon would send Onesimus back to help him.... (I can picture Paul putting a smiley face emoticon here if such a thing existed in ancient times!)
So what's the "bridge"?
Onesimus learned about the teaching of Jesus from Paul right in the midst of a very difficult situation. Sometimes religion can be presented as--what one dear old Jesuit used to say--"pious piffle." We keep it aside, in Church, all in a box away from the rest of the week and the rest of our lives. They are prayers that we say that have no real bearing upon the situation of our lives and the historical context in which we live. But the Word of God and the deeds of God and the promise of God are very very serious. Again, in the words of my Jesuit friend, "This is God's promise: Do not be afraid!" You do not need to be afraid. Jesus entrusted us to the Word of God when he ascended to the Father. It is from the Word, from the pages of the bible, the fire of the liturgy and the sacraments, and the secret words and inspiration spoken to each of us by the Spirit in moments of silent soul-searching, intercession, and prayer, spoken directly into the situations in which we shake with uncertainty, that we will rise with strength and courage to do what God is calling each of us to do. And THAT is what the world most needs. Each of us responding to the call of God right in the midst of life. As brave and courageous as St Paul and as St Onesimus.
That puts a tremendous responsibility on you as teacher and parent, for a child cannot build this bridge on their own. Your accompaniment day by day, speaking to them meaning in the midst of their daily experiences, helping them find a direction and courage from God himself who tells them who they are.
So this Lent, as you think about what you want to do yourselves, you might want to explore one of the following ways to strengthen your "bridge-building" skills:
Let a saint walk with you on your Lenten Journey and show you how he or she "built bridges" in their own life:
Spend some time each day of Lent reading from the Bible together with your family or students. You could read a passage from the Bible each day and talk about it together (a great resource for that would be Page-A-Day Bible or Bible for Young Catholics). Alternatively, you could begin with a conversation about what is happening in the kids' lives and then explore something in the life of Jesus which gives comfort or challenge, meaning and courage to their experience. For example, talk about what it must have been like for Jesus to have been afraid, alone, uncertain. What did he do during those times in his life? What is he saying to us--each of us personally--today?