Late last week Dan Bradesca ’88, principal extraordinaire, sent the Saint Ignatius community a copy of the letter addressed to the entire Society of Jesus by Fr. Arturo Sosa, S.J., Superior General of the Jesuits. The letter announced the joyous occasion of the Jubilee Year of St. Aloysius, a year that began last Friday and will conclude on March 9, 2019.
The namesake of the jubilee is the Jesuit Aloysius Gonzaga. Despite the fact that the name Gonzaga is more known these days for basketball prowess than anything else, Aloysius is the patron not of the three point shot, but of young students, Jesuit scholastics, Christian youth, the blind and those with AIDS and their care givers.
This jubilee year, beginning and ending on the birthday of St. Aloysius, coincides with the upcoming Synod of Bishops, a meeting that will focus on the topic of “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment.” The importance of young people for the future is obvious, and the last three popes in particular have helped the Church Universal to focus on the unique needs of young Catholics as well as the gifts and talents that they bring to the table.
For those of us who deal with young people every day in a high school setting – and especially for those of us who work in religious education and ministry – it is essential for us to not only teach the Faith, but to meet the students where they are so that we can, to use the mantra of Rich Clark, our old principal and now president at St. Martin de Porres High School, “bring them in through their door and lead them out through ours.”
In some ways, assessing where young people are is dependent on a number of factors. Things like family, economics, and media all play a role, yet when push comes to shove kids are kids. After spending almost four decades with high school students I’ve concluded that by and large they are less ‘individualistic’ than they are willing to admit and they are more idealistic than they realize. They tend to like being different as long as they have a group with which they can identify, and they want to make the world a better place.
Given those two parameters, the goal of religious education and ministry is to show young people that the Church is a worthwhile counter-cultural group, and to offer them distinctively Catholic ways to fight injustice. To do otherwise is to ensure that in the near future the Church of Christ will become impotent and irrelevant.
Fittingly, also last week, on a teacher in-service day, our discussions centered on providing space in the classroom for the teachings of the Church on matters of social justice. If ever there were a topic that hits both markers – the Church as a counter-cultural institution and one that has a profound message of justice – it is that of our doctrinal statements on social justice.
A great resource for anyone interested in a concise, yet well-rounded, description of Catholic Social Teaching is the website of the USCCB, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. At usccb.org there are a number of articles on social justice issues, but most helpful for beginners is the listing and description of the Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching.
For my money, to focus on the theme of Solidarity is to get to the heart of the matter. To be sure, the seven themes intertwine and none can stand alone, but Solidarity – seeing ourselves as a family where we are keepers of our sisters and brothers – is central to all Catholic social teaching. Those who propose a more just world yet do not stand with the unborn, the mentally and physically challenged, the chronically ill, and the elderly betray a prejudice that hurts us all. How can someone, for example, stand against racism while ignoring the targeting of minority communities by the abortion industry?
Young people are acutely attuned to uncovering such hypocrisy, and if given a message that is consistent, relevant, and sincere they will respond with all of the idealism and enthusiasm that their age engenders. If they are taken seriously and are allowed to use their gifts for a greater cause they will respond.
We see this most visibly at Saint Ignatius in the outpouring of time and energy by our students in the Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Homeless Ministry and in the Saint Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Ministry. It is difficult to secure a spot in the Labre vans that traverse the urban neighborhoods in the heart of Cleveland each Sunday evening; and the largest extracurricular – by far – at Saint Ignatius is the pallbearer ministry.
But this selfless activity of Catholic young people is not new, and a great example of that generosity was the life of St. Aloysius Gonzaga. Aloysius was born into the Italian aristocracy of the 16th Century, but gave it all up in order to follow his dream of becoming a Jesuit missionary. During his studies in Rome he begged alms for the poor and tended to the sick in a hospital opened by the Jesuits to care for plague victims.
Gonzaga admitted to his spiritual director, St. Robert Bellarmine, that the sights and smells at the hospital made him physically sick, yet he felt compelled to continue the work. A short time later he contracted the plague, and he died several days shy of his twenty-third birthday.
As we begin this Jubilee Year of St. Aloysius let us invoke his help in inspiring young Catholics to do as he did. Let us also pray that we who are older will by our words and actions be worthy guides, and that we will be open to follow the lead of young people who, like Gonzaga, offer their lives for those in need.