Abiding In His Love

For St. Valentine's Day, Mary Kate wrote an awesome post about the nature of love. Mary Kate wrote primarily for teens, especially those who attended Frassati Fest, challenging them to rise up to real, authentic love. As parents, youth ministers, small group leaders, and invested adults, we join this mission to proclaim authentic love to young people. If you haven’t read it, go check it out. You’ll want to know “what” authentic love is before you read more here.

We all know the cultural and spiritual forces working against us in this mission. Many of us have experienced first-hand the emptiness of the “hookup culture” and pornography. All of us have been impacted by broken marriages and divorce. In working with young people, we come face-to-face with the depression, isolation, and selfishness that destroy the lives and innocence of our youth. Confronted by this darkness, we wish there was something, anything we could do to help them fight these battles. And like them, we often feel helpless, hopeless, and defeated.

To aid us in this battle, I want to offer some practical advice for how we can better help our youth embrace authentic love, and embrace it more deeply ourselves, too. To do so, I’ll share some thoughts from people much wiser than me, followed by some of my own insights.

1. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.” - John 15:9

We have to practice what we preach. At the Last Supper, Jesus implores his disciples to abide in his love - in other words, to continue without fading or being lost. If we desire to help others embrace authentic love, we must experience that love first. Even more, we cannot experience it only once, but continuously and without fading. As the old mantra goes, “you can’t give what you don’t have.”

So how do we come to abide in Jesus’ love? The Eucharist and Confession. In the Eucharist, we receive the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus himself and become immersed in the love that Christ showed for us on the Cross. In Confession we receive Jesus’ Divine Mercy, which heals all our wounds and binds us back to himself.  Throughout my life, these two sacraments have helped me abide in Christ’s love more than anything else.

Granted, most of us cannot receive the Eucharist and Confession on a daily basis. For those other times, we abide in Jesus’ love through prayer. If we desire to help young people encounter Jesus’ love, we must be people of prayer. I neglected this part a lot during the first several years that I worked with young people. My routine was typically five minutes one day, fifteen minutes the next day, and maybe none after that (I was really busy!). “My work is my prayer,” I would tell myself. Baloney.

If we desire others to experience authentic love, we must spend time loving Jesus through daily prayer. It’s taken me many years, but I have built a solid foundation on this discipline, and I can honestly say I feel more effective that and my work is more fruitful than it ever was before. How you pray is the subject for another post, but if you’re interested now, check out episode 66 of the Freshly Brewed podcast, “How to Have a Heart-to-Heart.”

2. “Love that does not suffer is not worthy of that name.” - St. Clare of Assisi

This quote graces the end of every one of my wife’s emails, and I think it addresses a crucial part of our mission that we are missing. Like Mary Kate discussed in her post, love is a sacrifice of self. By definition, love must suffer! We need only look at a crucifix to remind us of this fact.

We all sacrifice for young people. We constantly sacrifice our time, our energy, and our money for the sake of those we serve: parents give their entire lives; Catholic school teachers and Youth Ministers give up higher-paying jobs and work constantly; chaperones and volunteers give up their own personal time, energy, and money. Despite these authentic sacrifices, I often wonder, “Am I suffering?”

Yes, I give a lot. But do I give until it hurts? I took this question with me on a retreat I made last summer, and I soon faced the reality that I do much of my work for selfish reasons. I do it because I’m good at it, because it’s the only job I’ve ever had, or because I want to serve the Church. I was shocked at the comfort and complacency that had seamlessly infiltrated my work and life. Since then, I’ve been striving to dig deeper and sacrifice more in my work.

Here’s the truth: working with young people should hurt us. If we aren’t hurting, then we have not loved our young people enough. Jesus was clear that many demons can only be cast out by prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29). The amount of time we pray should hurt our schedule - at the very least, it should do damage to our ability to binge-watch Netflix. This prayer for others should come in addition to the time we spend with Jesus on our own, too. Do we pray before an event? Before leading a small group? Do we simply “offer up” those souls, or do we go to battle for them in prayer?

Our fasting for others should hurt, too, whether it’s fasting from cream in our coffee, a favorite snack, or even social media. When I’m tempted to break a fast, I ask myself, “Do I really desire cream in my coffee more than I desire [insert teen name here] to encounter Jesus?” Start fasting from something you enjoy for your young people, and see what happens. Better yet, fast from something for the teen you struggle with the most, or the coworker you struggle with the most! And remember, if it doesn’t hurt, there’s more to give!

3. “Only in truth does [love] shine forth, only in truth can [love] be authentically lived.” - Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate 3.

Before we go any further, let’s be clear: this is hard! We live in a culture that rejects the truths of Christ and our proclamation of the truth often falls on deaf ears. In this hostile environment, we easily fall into one of two extremes, equally damaging to love and to the truth. Either we do not share the fullness of truth in an attempt to be loving, or we share the truth without love.

We must find ways to proclaim the truths of God’s love to our young people. Our culture does not hesitate to form young people contrary to authentic love, so we must be just as eager to show them the truth and beauty of authentic love. At the same time, we cannot simply share the truth for truth’s sake. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1). Without love, the truth sounds oppressive and annoying, and is quickly rejected. To be clear, truth is essential. But on its own, it is not enough. So, how do we find that balance of truth and love?

To do this takes patience and good planning. For example, it may not be prudent to give a full explanation of the Church’s teaching on same sex attraction at your Youth Ministry Kick-Off event. And that’s fine. But do we have a plan to lead our teens to this truth throughout our time with them? In meantime, how do we let authentic love shine forth, perhaps non-verbally and culturally? These types of questions help us make sure we always speak the truth and do so in an effective and loving way.

At my parish, we place a premium on unveiling God’s authentic love through the personal contact our youth receive from their adult leaders. We spend a lot of time building trust between our group leaders and our youth. Then, when the time comes to let the truth shine forth, our young people receive it from someone they trust, someone they know cares for them.  Of course, there are plenty of young people who still struggle or reject these truths, but we have seen a significant amount of fruit come from this structure.

To wrap things up, I’d like to point out the order of the above quotes. (I’m sure you noticed that the first “practical” tip didn’t come until the last part of the post!). This order echoes one final quote I’d like to share, this time from St. Josemaria Escriva. I stumbled upon it a few years ago, and I think it represents a useful model for tackling any situation, especially when it comes to sharing the truths of authentic love with young people. St. Josemaria writes,

“First, prayer; then, atonement; in the third place, very much ‘in the third place,’ action.”

If we follow this model, and open ourselves to the will of the Holy Spirit, I am confident that our young people will see the beauty, goodness, and fulfillment that only God’s love offers.

- Doug Ulaszek, Youth Ministry, Confirmation, and Adult Faith Coordinator - St. Christopher, Verona