Longings of the Human Heart

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Part of the mission statement for youth ministry at St. Bernadette's reads, "Our program aims to stir up a hunger in the hearts of the youth to experience the living God and to respond to His invitation to discipleship."  In this first stage of evangelization, the key words here are "stir up a hunger."  How do you react differently to the smell of food when you're hungry versus when your stomach is full?  If you're full it might smell pleasant and appealing, but when your stomach is already growling it creates an urgency - you can't think about or even do anything else until your desire is fulfilled!

In a similar way, our first job is to foster a spiritual hunger for Christ.  In reality, the desire for God is already present in each of us; as the Catechism says, "The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for" (CCC 27).  Because each of us already has this "God-shaped hole" in our hearts, it's not a matter of convincing others they should desire something (that's called a commercial!) but of helping others become conscious of the inner longing for God.

HOW TO RECOGNIZE SOMEONE IN THIS STAGE

One of the easiest ways to recognize this stage in teens is when they consistently give "textbook" answers to questions asked in small groups.  This suggests that they view their faith in an impersonal way as a set of facts to be memorized.

Another indicator that someone is in this stage is if they carry an air of self-sufficiency, as though they have life figured out and are perfectly capable of making decisions on their own.  Sometimes they will refuse to admit of any real struggles.  On the flip side, they may speak freely about their troubles but in doing so simply retell the "drama" of their life without inviting input.  While there is a legitimate sort of self-sufficiency that exists in the life of a mature disciple, it is always rooted in the awareness one's utter personal dependence on the grace of God.

HOW TO MINISTER TO THEM

Someone in this stage will usually be resistant to or disinterested in discussing the explicit content of the faith.  At best they will go along with it to appease the small group leader or to hurry up the conversation so they can get back to socializing.  It is important as small group leaders that we build a foundation of trust with these teens before we ask them to dive deeply into the faith.

One of the best ways to build this trust is to establish common ground with them.  Consider these words from Vatican II: "The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts" (Gaudium et Spes 1).  Being transparent with the teens and showing that we have the same doubts, struggles, hopes, disappointments, and joys they have promotes an authenticity and openness that are the sine qua non of effective evangelization.

This doesn't even have to pertain to matters of great depth.  When I was in seminary, I learned that a teen first seriously considered becoming a priest when he learned that I played guitar - he never knew you could be a priest and love music at the same time!

Until that trust is built, we also need to be careful not to try to fix every problem.  Sometimes they simply need permission to doubt or to question.  In one discussion with Jr. High boys, I asked  them to share the one question they would ask God if they were promised an answer.  Their answers ranged from "How can I know you really exist?" to "Why is life so hard?"  These are significant questions, and trying to answer them in the five minutes we had most likely would have trivialized them.

WHERE THIS IS HEADED

Every desire that we have is in some way intended to draw us to God through Jesus Christ.  Once we have given the teens time to acknowledge the longings they already possess, to acknowledge their questions and problems, we will be ready to propose Christ as the end of those desires, the answer to those questions, the solution to those problems.  In the words of Pope John Paul II:

β€œIt is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle" (World Youth Day 2000).