How, when the world is saying otherwise, are young, adolescent women and men to live in love?
At the Fourth Annual School of Theology and Ministry Religious Education Lecture on Thursday, October 18th, Theresa O’Keefe, Associate STM Professor, attempted to answer this question. She suggested that the answer is the key to actualizing a meaningful life in the Church’s adolescents.
The spiritual vivacity of our Church’s youth is critical to constructing the Kingdom of God on earth, since they are the body which will shape the Church’s future. Adolescence, which O’Keefe defined as a “long transitional space” of motion and change, can be a time of difficult self-consciousness—even nakedness—for many. But in that exposure is an opportunity for self-awareness which adolescents can capitalize on to make more reflective of their place in the world, their relationships with the others, and their relationships with themselves. Adolescence is the process of beginning to see the wider world, O’Keefe argued. It is marked by the provocative questions of “Who am I?’’ and “What is my purpose?’’
O’Keefe acknowledged that there are obstacles to this formation. Church scandals, lonelier pews, and the desertion of our spiritual vocabulary can make faith often unattractive and unorthodox. However, O’Keefe contended that the Church plays a critical role in providing a “community of belief, offering a meaningful horizon.” This “horizon,” she continued, is ever-changing, but is nonetheless critical for adolescents to develop so they can measure the significance of their experiences and work towards lives of meaning and purpose. That is the goal of adolescent faith formation.
O’Keefe argued that this all-important, self-discoverable horizon is the awesome mystery of God—that we even exist; that nothing is outside the expanse of God; that God continually gives and we perpetually return; that mankind thrives when it loves.
One member in the audience suggested that her horizon is “what I have when everything is swept away.” And when all is swept away, O’Keefe argued, all we are left with is our identity: we are individuals of infinite and unique value, tethered to equally to the value of community and the Church.
So how can the Church practically form these horizons in our faith’s youth? Seeing and affirming them as having unique value and enabling them to see others as fellow persons, is one way. By connecting practices to their values, those charged with forming the faith of our youth can replace the “this-is-right-because-it-says-so” attitude with one which anchors our practices in an ever-expanding understanding of who God is. For example, instead of simply stating and regurgitating precepts like “You shall not kill,” the statement can be reframed into “We don’t kill because we value the inherent dignity of every human life,” O’Keefe proposed.
Moreover, the Church and educators can offer faith ballasts for adolescents, rooting their burgeoning faith in the stories of our rich traditions like the Saints and Scripture and in the practice of recognizing the presence of God both in and out of the church setting. O’Keefe’s assertions paralleled closely the instructions of St. Ignatius of Loyola, BC’s patron, who encouraged a “contemplative life” rooted in “seeing God in all things.”
Finally, O’Keefe stressed the importance in educators relaying the power in recognizing and growing relationships among adolescents. Religion, she reminds, is not a set of beliefs, but rather, a region within which we act and manifest a meaningful life.
In all, O’Keefe’s words rekindle the dynamic question: what does a meaningful life look like for each one of us? We must consider what we can do to direct our younger Church brothers and sisters in creating their own purposeful horizons.