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What the Young Can Teach Us About Living the Gospel

Helping child with disabilities


William Van Ornum - published on 08/09/14

Practice the Faith, don't just preach it.

Pope Francis would have us practice our faith rather than rely mainly on proselytizing. And he is open to learning things from young people. This leads to a question: Is there a sensus fidei in the faith of our young people?

Often cited in the context of sensus fidei are those who find deep meaning in and love for the Gospel, those who search for the Lord in the traditional rubrics of the faith, many of which were de-emphasized after Vatican II.

What of those 20-somethings (and others) who find they do not accept the teachings of the Church as they are clearly enunciated in the Catechism, whether rejecting them with an informed conscience after much soul-searching or simply going with the flow of 21st century culture?

A recent document by the International Theological Commission (ITC) offers a scholarly look at the concept of sensus fidei throughout the history of the Church. Because there is no mention of young people in this document, an extrapolation may be helpful.

The errors of young people are frequently discussed in the press and other media: they do not attend Church regularly; they cohabit; they may defiantly oppose some Church teaching (for example, supporting abortion in cases of rape).

But are there other qualities in the individual and collective behavior of the young that challenge the rest of us. Their behaviors invite us to confront our own hypocrisy and our failure to live according to the Gospel.

Section 80 of the ITC document addresses the thorny problem of what to do when a majority of Catholics, as we may consider our young people, do not follow a Magisterial teaching, bearing in mind that sensus fidei is not determined by counting votes and looking for a majority. The document states:

“There are occasions, however, when the reception of magisterial teaching by the faithful meets with difficulty and resistance, and appropriate action on both sides is required in such situations. The faithful must reflect on the teaching that has been given, making every effort to understand and accept it. Resistance, as a matter of principle, to the teaching of the magisterium is incompatible with the authentic sensus fidei. The magisterium must likewise reflect on the teaching that has been given and consider whether it needs clarification or reformulation in order to communicate more effectively the essential message. These mutual efforts in times of difficulty themselves express the communion that is essential to the life of the Church, and likewise a yearning for the grace of the Spirit who guides the Church ‘into all the truth’ (Jn 16:13).”

Note here the responsibility of those affirming the Magisterium. It is not to repeat or interpret the Magisterium to others but to realize when differences of acceptance occur “appropriate action on both sides is required.” How often do we try to put this in practice?

We can’t control what other people are going to do. Even trying to control others negates the free will God has entrusted them with.What the passage above suggests is that we look at our own behaviors to see what we could change to better proclaim Magisterial teaching to others, rather than repeating the same definitions and arguments. Again, is the amount of time we spend in rhetoric and preaching equivalent to “walking the walk?”

Likewise the document suggests that it is our responsibility to reformulate teachings in order to effectively communicate the same message. There is a radical suggestion here: that when are are not getting through to others, we may have a moral and Christian responsibility to try differently.

Perhaps no other subject roils our souls like abortion. Because of this, Catholics of good faith work to change the laws allowing abortion, bring pressure to legislators, conduct educational campaigns, and participate in political rallies where busloads of Catholics travel to cities where they can witness and convey their faith to others.

Many 20-somethings do not support this teaching, however. Is it possible that, among them, there is nevertheless a sensus fidei, as the Holy Spirit guides them to act in ways that are models for the rest of us—different approaches to affirming the sanctity of life—which may at the same time remind the rest of us that we are being complacent? Is their something these youth can teach us about how to effectively serve as witnesses to the sanctity of life?

For example, it seems hypocritical that the Church offers little help to parents and families of children born with devastating genetic defects. Yes, there is a wonderful network in Catholic Charities. But so many things that could help the families of the developmentally disabled–the persons most at risk—are left unacknowledged and undone.

Where are fellow parishioners when parents are exhausted and need a break? How many offer to cook for a young mother, exhausted by the demands of a child with special needs?

Where are we during school years? Do we help as tutors or readers? Although we say we cherish life, how many Catholics keep up with these families for the rest of their lives? (Cardinal Hayes home in Millbrook, NY, does this, but it is exceptional.)

I’ve never seen a bus full of Catholics turn off the road to help over-worked staff at group homes with cooking or cleaning. Or even visit just to ease the loneliness of everyone. Does every one of these buses have to go to Washington? Why can’t a few show they have listened to the Beatitudes and become helpers of the poor in spirit?

Instead of writing letters to Congress, how about being a pen-pal with an orphan who is developmentally disabled?

I reviewed a movie several years ago (Extraordinary Measures about a child with a rare and fatal genetic anomaly). Imagine loving your child, knowing that she or he will not live a full life. It is Big Pharma that finally comes to this family’s aid.

Similarly, we can criticize politicians for supporting the current abortion law, yet many of these same politicians have supported a more generous Medicaid and funds for children who are painfully impaired. How would you answer this question: Who does more for the nations’s handicapped people? The Church or Government? Certainly the Church does a great deal. But can we honestly say it is doing enough?

Since I teach college students, I see an inspiring group of young people, not all of whom support every teaching of the Magisterium. But they are out there in the trenches, doing the difficult grunt work required when helping children with severe problems. They volunteer in understaffed group homes. They include children with impairments within their own family networks. They drive small vans in rush hour to take clients to community activities. Like the civil rights workers in the 1960s, they take these qualified voter-citizens to the polls.

I know several who volunteer to work with children with severe behavior problems—biting, hitting and spitting. The scars left by these children are true stigmata. Now these are the same children the rest of  said would be cherished when they were in the womb. But do our behaviors back up what we are saying? How are we cherishing them now? Did we keep up with the promise of our rhetoric?

Others take entry level jobs for a fraction of what they could earn elsewhere, caring for children who have autism, mental retardation, or behavioral disturbances, not because they can’t find anything else (these are students with high SAT scores and grade point averages). When I look at them, I know they are making a conscious sacrifice. They have chosen a life of the Gospel.

It’s clear there is a sensus fidei among these young people, one as important to the Magisterium as any other teaching: living out the Beatitudes with their neighbors. Perhaps we need to recognize the Spirit’s presence in them, and reflect on our own sins of omission that occur by our own neglect. Is this too confrontational a question to ask of you, our readers, and of myself?

William Van Ornumis professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research and development/grants at American Mental Health Foundation in New York City. He studied theology and scripture at DePaul University.

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