About three months ago, I was invited to give a talk to a class of juniors at a Catholic high school. Though in my more than 55 years as a priest and almost as many years as a professor I have given countless talks, I was a little anxious because an audience of high school students is not my usual audience. The subject I was invited to speak about was the great Catholic short story writer Flannery O’Connor.
I accepted the invitation, but even though I think O’Connor was one of the great 20th-century Catholic authors, I did not think I could do her justice to an audience of teenagers. I suggested as a topic “Reading Catholic Novels in a Secular Society.” I picked the topic for at least two reasons. One was that I wanted the teenagers to get some sense of what it means for a Catholic to live in a society in which secular humanism is the philosophy embraced by many intellectuals. The other was that I wanted to introduce them to what I think of as a “treasure hidden in a field,” the Catholic novel. I gave the lecture, and the students seemed to enjoy it.
My talk has been on my mind recently because I have been invited to give a day of recollection to teenagers in a few weeks. That might be easier than speaking about literature, but still I have been looking for some help and guidance. This concern about the day of recollection led me to read Pope Francis’ Third Apostolic Exhortation, “Christ Lives,” addressed to young people and the entire people of God. It is magnificent!
How providential that I accepted the invitation that led me to read Pope Francis’ Exhortation, which I might not have done if I was not looking for help with giving the day of recollection. The Spirit breathes where he will.
The first two chapters of the Exhortation, about 30 pages, might help teenagers, but I did not find them interesting reading. However, the last six chapters, more than 100 pages, are wonderful. Immediately after I finished reading the Exhortation, I contacted a friend who regularly works with teenagers and told him that it was “must reading.”
Though I decided to read the Exhortation in order to obtain some help in giving my talk to teenagers, I found the Holy Father’s message inspiring and helpful for myself. I am glad that the Exhortation is described as being for the “entire people of God.”
At one point in the text Pope Francis writes the following:
“…I now wish to speak to young people about what is essential, the one thing which we should never keep quiet about. It is a message containing three great truths that all of us need constantly to be hearing.
“The very first truth I would tell each of you is this: ‘God loves you.’ It makes no difference whether you have heard it or not. I want to remind you of it. God loves you. Never doubt this, whatever may happen to you in life. At every moment, you are infinitely loved.” (p. 55)
My impression is that in every Sunday homily I say something similar to Pope Francis’ statement about God’s love. I usually add that we need to hear often that God loves us so that this most important truth will sink into our consciousness and into our conscience.
Lately, I have been suggesting to parishioners that we should try to think of the most loving person we know and then try to multiply that person’s ability to love by a million and still we won’t even come close to how much God loves us. God’s love for us is so great that we cannot comprehend it completely.
The Holy Father then goes on to say that God will always respect our freedom, that God’s love is both free and freeing. What I try to stress frequently in Sunday homilies is that we don’t have to win, or earn or merit God’s love. God’s love is all gift. God is pure self-gift. In relation to us, God is all gift.
The first reason I stress this is that I believe it to be true. A second reason I stress it is that I am afraid that some of the parishioners may have residual images of a God of vengeance, a God Who is as eager to punish as he is to love. That’s not the God Whom Jesus talks about in the gospels. It is also not the God Whom Pope Francis has spoken about during his pontificate.
I hope that Pope Francis continues to speak about “what is essential, the one thing that we should never keep quiet about.”
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-min talks every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.