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What the Young Can Teach Us About Living the Gospel


William Van Ornum - published on 08/09/14

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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