Belonging and participation: openness to encounter

Belonging and participation: openness to encounter

Active in the process of change and willing to participate and commit themselves to concrete activities in which the personal contribution of each might be an occasion for recognizing one’s identity. This is what young people desire to be, and not passive recipients of formation. I remember when Father Salvatore, the AVI founder, taught me how to do daily meditation, he asked me: “Do you have a friend who would like to pray this way too? Do it together and she too will learn.” I was in my twenties, and the trust shown to me from an elderly priest encouraged and filled me with so great an enthusiasm that I took the initiative to gather a few friends around Scripture.

To be entrusted with a task, even a small one, inside of a solid, common project, represents, for a young heart, an opportunity in which to grow. It is the chance to put at the service of others one’s personal talents and to develop meaningful relationships. Marco, a college student in Texas, contributed in organizing in Mexico, his own country, a huge conference when he was in high school. They managed to bring Nick Vujicic, the main character of the short film “The butterfly circus.” He is a motivational speaker who has given hope to 5000 young people and those affected with disabilities.

Even years later, Marco is still in awe while sharing his experience: it was a turning point in his life. He was able to work on a team for the good of many. Now his identity includes a desire to be committed in contributing to a better world. He didn’t give up dreaming and planning, and he was able to grasp the concrete opportunity that was offered to him right then and there.

For me it was very inspiring to hear his story; I realized that when we grow up, we have the tendency to despise being behind the scene and we lose sight of the big picture if our role is not universally recognized. Marco instead, with a spark of joy in his eyes, focused his attention on the concrete result, fruit of the generosity of many. With a “humble pride” and an almost veiled surprise to be among the “chosen ones” who could be part of that project, he didn’t even think of complaining about the hard work. He cherishes that time as a treasure from which grace continues to flow.

Another joy came to us while ministering at the Catholic Center during Lent 2017: the outreach team. With the following few lines we invited college students to volunteer to help us and evangelize young people on campus:

“The idea is to explore the beauty of our encounters with the Lord, His love, joy and mercy and to find ways to expose our friends (even those less involved with faith) to this beauty through friendship.”

We could peer into their hearts. The following answers to the question: “Why did you accept to come?” show us their desire to learn, to be empowered, to acquire tools, to practice, and to take risks in order to live the love that burns within them and waits to be poured out into the world.

“I am in an organization on campus and I see students not involved in their faith. I would like to strengthen my ability to reach out. I want to help others, but I don’t know how.”

“After my mission experience in Honduras, I want to evangelize every day. I have joy and many people thirst for it. I would like to go out of my comfort zone to share it.”

“I want to bring on campus what I receive at the Catholic Center in which I am rooted.”

“I see the AVI sisters reaching out in the cafeteria, and people want to talk. I would like to learn how to do it.”

At the end of the journey together they shared:

“I am willing to be awkward for this; I am ready to waste more time. I have more joy.”

“I am able now to initiate new relationships; I like to hear people’s stories.”

“I felt blessed to have apostolic homework. Who has apostolic homework?!”

This is what they say: they want to be involved and active in changing the world. And the experience of doing it leads them to pray, to work hard, to take risks, to discern their vocation and to love.

“I really wanted to tell you about my experiences through this outreach team.”

What I learned most is about the unfailing and powerful love of Christ. I came into the outreach group still struggling with feelings that I was not good enough to evangelize and that people didn’t need me. This group has given me the opportunity to know that yes, Jesus does choose me to evangelize! He chooses all of us who have encountered him to evangelize. I’m not meant to do evangelization based off of my own strengths and weaknesses, but through His power. Philippians 4:13 comes to mind — I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. I can trust that when I am obedient to his will, he will provide the rest.

I met a girl through prayer bench and she is now involved in a FOCUS bible study. I got to pray over her last semester, and she cried to me about all the things going on in her life. It broke my heart to see her pain and hopelessness. From prayer bench, we got to walk to the adoration chapel and pray for a bit. She had never been, so I was so excited that Jesus provided the circumstance for us to go right then and there. I gave her my number, but didn’t hear from her after that. A couple weeks ago, she passed by prayer bench and I stopped her and got to talk for a while. The next week we went to a bible study together and she really enjoyed it. We talked in my car for about 30 minutes about the Catholic Church, and I got to answer some of the questions she had. The Holy Spirit worked so incredibly in all of this, I am still in awe!

Jesus has really led me to step out of my comfort zone this semester. It has been scary, uncomfortable, and uncertain, but all worth it. I have had so many beautiful encounters that I never thought I could have been a part of. Every person in the outreach group has amazed me at their willingness to respond to Jesus’ call for us to evangelize. I know that as much as I attempted to evangelize, I was continuously being evangelized by the faithful people around me. I am so thankful that Jesus led me to this group. I have learned so much and have grown a deeper passion for evangelization.” (Victoria)

Young people are open to encounter. We encounter young people in college, in the cafeterias, in the parishes and at sport events. They encounter peers. They encounter strangers. They encounter Jesus Christ.

Yes, but what is an encounter?

Here is what I learned from Greg, who briefly stopped by my office at St Mary’s Catholic Center to tell me an episode of his life. An encounter, said Greg, needs to include three elements: it has to be unplanned, it requires two people, and it expects vulnerability. Basically it is a surprise and not an appointment; it cannot be a monologue with ourselves or with our natural or artificial emotions; it exposes us to the risk of letting somebody inside us and letting a part of us being given to another, who is different from us and could potentially transform and even upset us.

I like to apply this definition to what happens with people, no one excluded, and also with God. Unplanned; two people; vulnerability. Such is prayer. Prayer is an encounter: it surprises us and the way it develops each day cannot be planned; it is towards God, who calls and waits for a loving response, it is not a mere personal reflection or a spiritual feeling. Prayer is real when we are vulnerable and open to a vocation from God, who is also vulnerable and exposed to our rejection or indifference about his presence: Word and call.

“…and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying; and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. (Jn 1:36-39).”

In the search for meaning in their lives, the two disciples of John the Baptist hear Jesus make the penetrating question: “What do you seek?” To their reply, “Rabbi (which means Teacher), where do you live?”, the Lord responds with an invitation: “Come and see” (Jn 1:38-39). At the same time, Jesus calls them to embark on an inner journey and to be prepared to move forward in a practical way, without really knowing where this will lead them. It will be a memorable encounter, so much so that they even remember the exact time of day (cf. Jn 1:39).

Two young disciples search, encounter and pray (yes, because to talk with Jesus, with the Word and deeds he left us in the Bible and in the Sacraments, means to pray). They follow and stay with Him, cultivating his friendship day by day. They live with the One who surprised and called them, the One who would have eventually send them on the mission of becoming his apostles!

For our reflection (taking written notes can help us to pray and to dialogue with God while answering these questions):

Adults:

How can I empower young people and give them “homework” so that they can experience the joy of participating and contributing to the good of all? How do I stay open to the encounter with God and others? What am I passionate about? How do I actively live out this ideal and how do I share it with young people? Which Grace do I ask God today in order to grow in these areas?

Young people:

What great projects have I already participated in and what did I learn about myself and about the way I can contribute? Have I missed some opportunities? Why? How have I encountered God so far? How do I respond to Jesus when He asks: What do you seek?

Concrete resolution:

Name the characteristics of youth described in this meditation. Choose one of them for each day of the month, so that you can live them out in a very practical way and be transformed. Ask God for the grace to respond to His small, daily invitations with your concrete actions, in order to stay young at heart.

 

September’s meditation is by sister Clara Remartini, AVI