“The prison-house in which I live is falling to decay. But God renews my spirit’s strength, within these walls of clay.” —Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
The Lenten season thus begins with a reminder of our mortality, and a call to empty ourselves of the clutter and allow God to begin the restoration we need. Lent brings the repentant sinner into a moment of confrontation with our bodies by calling us to fast. It’s become fashionable to turn fasting away from physical discomfort to a more metaphysical concept about leaving behind unkind behavior in favor of being nice to others, but this limits the power of God’s renewal.
Many people are willing to endure the physical discomfort of fasting during Lent because it is tightly wound with a desire for transformation, of the body and the soul. We feel good when we give up something that we know has become an unhealthy attachment. Once a year we are given a Spiritual rationale for trimming down and giving our livers a much-needed rest. This sense of accomplishment reveals the God-given triad of body-mind-soul. If Easter brings us back to our old way of living then we may need to dive deeper into why this habit was only worth giving up for 40 days. Sister Joan Chittister touches on this in her reflection on this ancient Lenten practice. “Fasting was supposed to add something to our lives as well as take something away. It was meant to sensitize us to life more than it was to deprive us of it.”
This intriguing concept of being sensitized to life is an important lesson to those of us who feel that life is rushing past. It also sheds light on the malaise that has seeped into the youth culture and infected them with an existential crisis. They are not asking what is the meaning of life, but is life worth living. Look at the disturbing statistics about mental illness and addiction among teens: one in eight suffer from depression; one in seven have eating disorders; one in three suffer from severe anxiety; and one in four self-injure. We keep looking for the best youth program to reconnect our youth with the Church when they are silently screaming for healing. If ever there was a need for a Church that is a field hospital it must begin with them.
It is not easy to pinpoint the root of this discontent among our youth, but many report a feeling of profound loneliness, even while they are connected to hundreds of people through social media. We learned from the recent Synod on Youth and the Fifth Encuentro that young people need to be accompanied. Christian psychologist Roy Petitfils describes accompaniment as “stepping into kids’ hearts and lives, accompanying them by walking alongside them, pointing out pitfalls, and offering suggestions, guidance, and to challenge them to navigate what can be difficult paths.” As much as we want to give youth rich catechesis and uplifting Liturgies, the priority must be to find adults who are willing to share their journey.
Young people who are in the throes of an emotional crisis are more likely to see a person of faith before they seek professional help because mental illness is still stigmatized in our society. Professional youth ministers are not easy to find in these days of limited parish resources, but this should not limit the Church from responding to the needs of our youth. We don’t need more “youth ministers,” but more people willing to minister to youth. The most important structural change we can make in our Church is to help adults recognize in themselves the power to transform the lives of a young person by being present to them. We do not need theologians to pass along the faith. As Roy Petitfils points out, “Our job isn’t to put Jesus in their hearts; it’s to help them realize that He is already there and help remove the clutter, the debris and other interference that blocks the sound of God’s still small voice within them.”
The Church is filled with the tools that can help young people. The Eucharist reminds us that our Good Fridays have an Easter Resurrection. Reconciliation unburdens us from the bad decisions we have made, and the hurt inflicted on us by others. Prayer calms our inner turmoil, and when done communally, unites our suffering with others. The Church is also filled with sincere adults who know how to use these tools.
Many people began their Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday with a sincere desire to transform their lives through prayer, fasting and giving alms. When we fast, we empty our stomachs to become more present to our bodies. This helps us to empty ourselves of the obstacles that keep us from hearing God’s call to go beyond our comfort zone. Sister Joan explains, “In the Eucharist, Jesus changed for my sake. In fasting, I was being called to change for something far beyond my own sake.” Our youth are praying that you are listening to God.
Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation.