During the General Canonical Visit to the Province of Hungary, I had the opportunity to meet numerous groups of students from our schools. In all of them, I was able to have a talk with the students and, in many cases, to answer their questions. I would like to share with you a simple reflection on the thread of one of the most interesting questions they asked me, and on which I am still reflecting.
It was in Göd, in the Professional School that Hungary’s Piarists run, dedicated to young people who seek to make their way through life from situations that are not easy at all. One of the boys, a young man about 16 years old asked me this question: When did you begin to believe in God? The boy’s name is Erik, and I remember him perfectly, months later.
Of course, I answered from my own personal history of faith, but I also asked him why he was asking me that question. And his answer was – as I expected – very clear: because I am seeking my faith.
I tell you this simple experience because I think it’s very significant for us. Perhaps many of us, who believe in the God of Jesus since our childhood and who have often received this faith from the family, find it difficult to accompany the searches of young people who are open to faith or seek it with eagerness, but don’t know how to find it or how to discover it.
I think that this is an extraordinary challenge: to witness, to arouse, to transmit, to accompany and educate the faith of the young people of nowadays, who in many occasions and contexts are far from the faith simply because they have never lived it. However, they’re looking for it.
My goal with this letter is not to write about “the proclamation of faith” in general, but about our schools and Piarist presences as spaces from which we can help young people discover Christ and find faith. It is perhaps one of the most important contributions we can make as Piarists.
Why does a young man ask the question of faith?
I would have liked to talk to Erick about this, but it wasn’t possible. Nevertheless, I can imagine the reasons this young man – and many like him – have to start such an exciting quest. I am convinced that Erick has asked himself this question because of what he lives in our school in Göd and on the basis of what he perceives from the people who accompany him and in his own companions.
A Piarist school is a formidable platform to help young people ask themselves the question of faith. The attitudes of the Piarists and the other educators who work in it, the “soul” perceived in the school, the priorities from which we educate, the activities we organize, the invitations that young people receive, the spaces of encounter with God that they are offered and cared of, and so many other things, gradually go into the young man’s heart, like water through a crevice. And some begin to hesitate, to think, to ask questions… And some – perhaps not many – take the step of formulating and sharing their quests.
But for this to happen, young people need to see the “hidden treasure” that is at the heart of our schools, our lives and our reasons for living. It has always been that way, and always will be. Faith is transmitted through the signs that express it and the credibility of the people who embody it. That is a reason why we always say – quoting St. Francis of Assisi – that “you must always preach, and if necessary, with words“.
What are our students’ positions on the faith?
Being aware of the risk of simplification, I think we can say that there are several types of positions in front of faith in all our students, always depending on the contexts and the various situations. I’m going to try to synthesize them:
- Young believers, happy with their faith and eager to grow in it, to share it and to guide their lives from it.
- Young people open to the faith, who may feel therefore good in pastoral contexts, but who do not live it are attracted by it in a way that raises positions or choices from the faith.
- Young people indifferent to the faith, who are not interested or care for it.
- Young people who are negative in front of faith, contrary to it, closed or distant of their own free will.
- Young people who have never lived it and do not have it on their life horizon, but may consider their search depending on the circumstances they live. That’s Erick’s case.
- Young people of other religions, who live it in a different way.
What can we offer all of them?
No doubt, the first ones must be offered processes of faith from which they can live and guide their lives as Christians. It is clear that the Calasanz Movement is one of the best options. For the second group it is very helpful to receive attractive proposals from which they can live important aspects of being Christian, in order to bring them closer to the global processes we offer. Those who stand in indifference can discover the value of faith, step by step, through shared experiences, testimonies, or reflections. Those of the fourth group need, above all, to feel that they have a place among us, that they are valued and loved and that they can participate in many Piarist initiatives. To those who are like Erik, we have to accompany them thoroughly, offering them open itineraries that will help them to meet Jesus, including them in so many proposals that we carry out. Those who profess another religion can and must grow among us as brothers, respected and convened, so that they may learn that religion is not a barrier that separates human beings.
I think that all this must be done from schools and schools that are clear in their proclamation and experience of the Gospel of Jesus.
The center of our presences is Christ and his proposal, which is universal and for all. This does not exclude anyone, but is offered to all, and we know that the answers are diverse as are the positions of all who participate in our educational proposals. Our Piarist presences have a treasure to offer, and we cannot hide it. On the contrary, we must offer it clearly, always respectful of diversity. Both dynamics can be combined well.
Pope Francis quotes on numerous occasions a phrase given by Benedict XVI at the CELAM Conference in Aparecida. Pope Benedict stated that “the Church does not grow out of proselytism, but by attraction“. It is a very important statement, which has to help us to reflect on the keys from which we present the gospel proposal to the young people who grow up among us and from which we accompany their processes of search and reflection.
What should our proposals look like to be attractive from the point of view of faith?
This is a question that must always be in our meetings, at the tables of the teams that run our works and that drive our ministry. In addition, in the soul of all the communities that really want to be the soul of the school. Not every proposal or any process serves the cause we’re talking about. I would like to provide only two small keys which I think are fundamental and which I see in many of our Piarist contexts. Just two. I leave you the task of completing this reflection. I think it’s an important task, and hopefully we’ll take it forward in our Piarist presences.
A proposal based on experiences that will make the young person feel, at the same time, listened to and challenged. Both dynamics are essential. It’s not enough just to “listen to the young man.” We must be able to offer him something that surpasses him, that challenges him, that helps him understand that neither he nor his aspirations are everything. Listen to understand, challenge to unsettle and open the soul. Both at once.
A proposal in which it is very clear who we propose and from what vision we do it. A proposal that notes that the Gospel is present, inspiring and enriching it. A proposal that generates itineraries, that expresses communion, that provokes wishes for fraternity, that helps the vocational question. A proposal, in short, capable of arousing the search for “something else”.
I often think of the young man in chapter 10 of the Gospel of Mark. A young man who was able to ask the right question: what must I do to reach fullness? He got the answer clear. And he dared not accept it. We don’t know what happened to him. But what we do know is that he knew how to ask and got an answer. We will not help the faith of young people by responding to them downwards, nor will everyone accept or understand the proposals we make. But only with significant dynamics can we provoke certain questions, and only with challenging answers can we generate paths of faith. And there we must be, accompanying and sharing the way of the young people that God sends us.
Let us ask God to grant us the gift of knowing how to challenge and accompany. Receive a fraternal embrace.
Fr. Pedro Aguado Sch. P.