My fingers furiously flipped through a hardcover edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints. “Daddy’s original plan” for my kindergartner to be the patron saint of dancers for the All Saints parade had blown up in my face.
Did you know the patron saint of dance is a guy? Neither did I. "You mean, there's no female saint for dancers?" my daughter, Hope, asked in a quivering voice.
"Well, no, sweetheart, not one I can find. But, um, hey . . . how about St. Lydwina, the patron saint of ice skaters? You like ice skating, right?" We live in Arizona, and my five-year-old has never ice-skated, but that mattered little. She had seen figure skaters once on television and found the costumes pretty and the movements graceful.
With her reluctant "okay," plan B had the green light. My wife, Melanie, raced through a trunk of old dance costumes and swiftly transformed one of them into a makeshift skater's outfit. Thanks to her sewing magic, Hope was, I'm sure, the first saint in the entire communion to be adorned in sequins.
Later that evening, God gave me a simple yet profound insight. As I kissed and blessed my "St. Lydwina," I told her, "Hope, sweetheart, I'll bet the church doesn't have a female saint for dancers yet because that's the job that God designed for you!" She threw her arms around me in a moment I'm sure I'll need to cling to when she hits her teenage years.
Most Underrated Sacrament? The idea of being close to God and becoming a saint can be very attractive to young children. But what about the junior high and high school years, when so many kids start complaining about Sunday Mass—to say nothing of Saturday afternoon confession?
While my three girls are still under the age of seven, I'm no stranger to this struggle. I've worked in Catholic youth ministry for over fifteen years and spoken to teenagers all over the globe. Most of them—even Catholic teens—don't connect with the saints or want to be considered "holy" at all. They see holiness as self-righteous, unenlightened, and unrealistic. It's no wonder that they fail to appreciate the sacraments—and especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which is fearfully avoided or wholly ignored.
What can we do to offer our young ones a different perspective on this most underrated sacrament? How can we help them to value it as a way of meeting Jesus and being transformed by him?
Of Holiness and Hellfire. My own experience of confession is typical of what I see in many teens. Until I was sixteen, I went for one reason alone: to avoid hell. I had little remorse or true contrition. Breaking the commandments meant an eternity engulfed in flames—no sunblock could protect me, no maternal prayers could save me. No, the only chance I had was to head into a small box and grudgingly sputter out my offenses against the God I hardly knew. I would throw myself on the mercy of the court and pray that the Judge would be lenient.
A youth minister finally got through to me and corrected my misimpressions. In countless conversations on a parish basketball court, he helped me, first, to see just how empty and burdened my young life had become. I was seeking temporary happiness at every turn, but nothing that could bring me everlasting joy.
My youth minister fired me with a new vision: God was inviting me to live a holy life of closeness to him. He also affirmed my ability to do this—to be a saint—with God's grace. I needed to redefine my goals, he said, and he pointed me to confession as my first stop on the road to holiness.
After finally taking this step, I experienced a freedom and clarity for my life that I had never known before. I could appreciate the Sacrament of Reconciliation for what it really is: an incredible gift to help us love and follow Jesus—to be saints.
Clearly Define the Goal. How can you do for your children or grandchildren what my youth minister did for me? There is no formula, of course, but here are a few ideas.
- Invite your children to live lives of greater virtue. Affirm their potential, their uniqueness, and their ability to do great things for God. You might share verses like Jeremiah 29:11; Psalm 139:14-16; and Ephesians 2:10.
- Have intentional conversations with your kids about their purpose in life, what talents God created in them, and what his expectations might be for those talents. If they can't list any talents, that's a great starting point for further discussion and affirmation.
- Direct the conversation to God's will. Ask, "What do you think God desires for your life?"
- Conversations like this will pave the way to seeing Confession as an opportunity for fulfillment, freedom, and true joy. They will help your teens to understand that the Holy Spirit works through all the sacraments to unleash a person's full potential and direct it back to God.
From Anger to Awe. Six years after my change of direction, I was the parish youth minister on the opposite end of challenging conversations. That's how I met an angry teen named Mike, who liked to vent about his "problems with the church." He was especially incensed that "a church run by celibates" would tell him what he could or could not do when it came to his sexuality. But Mike's actual problem lay deeper.
Despite his solid parochial school education, Mike's perspective on faith was impersonal and cold. He knew the commandments but had no relationship with their Author. To him, faith involved a corporate relationship, not a personal one; it was a matter of "what" (the church as an institution) and not "Who."
When does faith become personal? Isn't it when you see that God has saved you and delivered you from your sin? When you're not only grateful for the cross of Christ but you know him as your Savior? Yes, "God so loved the world . . ." (John 3:16)—but then you have to make the jump to God so loved me.
Mike made the jump while on a retreat that fall. It happened during a powerful Confession, where he encountered God intimately and experienced the tangible effects of God's great mercy. After that, he began to frequent Confession. Gradually, his whole life changed.
That was twelve years ago. Now Mike is a newly ordained priest. As he sits on the other side of the confessional, he helps others to let go of anger and pain; he helps them to meet the Lord who loves them.
Once young people see their faith as a relationship with a "Who"—not a restraint-filled mandate from a "what"—they will embrace the church's goal of salvation, along with the sacraments and other helps to holiness. This change can only happen through a face-to-face encounter with God's mercy.
"God likes me?" On that same high school retreat was a shy, awkward young woman named Sarah. Although not Catholic, she never missed a Sunday night Mass or youth group gathering. I was perplexed: Why did she keep coming for catechesis when she hadn't even been baptized?
Two years later, after the Easter Vigil where she was received into the church, Sarah answered my unspoken question. She told me that those weekly sessions were the only times she ever felt worth anything. "I had always heard 'God loves you,' but when you said how much God liked me . . . I had never heard that before, Mark, and I've never forgotten it."
God is love, we know, and so we believe that he loves us. But how many of us stop to consider that God also likes us—that he rejoices in us as his creation? For teens especially, this is an important message. God likes you: It's the difference between a cold Creator in a heavenly courtroom and a warm Abba in the heavenly family room.
If, like Sarah, teens know that God is approachable and affirming, they will come to relish the sacraments as an intimate way of growing in a relationship that means more to them than any other. They will seek Reconciliation because they see their sin not just as "breaking the rules" but as breaking their heavenly Father's heart. In tough times and tempting situations, they will protect their state of grace because it is rooted in a relationship.
Reality Check. Few Catholic teenagers are encouraged to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and even fewer see their parents go. This is not conjecture or my personal opinion: It is a fact based on countless conversations I have had with teens and parents.
If we want our children to receive all that God has for them, we might need to start by reflecting on some hard questions. Do we ourselves want to grow closer to Jesus? Are we aiming for sanctity, or has the vision grown dim? In our own lives, do we give the sacraments primacy or mere lip service?
One practical change to consider: Schedule a time to go to confession once or twice a month—and go as a family. Even little ones can come along and pray. The important thing is to provide children with a regular opportunity—a built-in "appointment" with the Lord that they can count on when they feel weighed down by sins and need mercy and grace to live in the light.
Who knows? The patron saint of video games—or skateboarding or stem cell research—may be living under your roof. God is offering the grace. It's worth doing everything possible to facilitate the sacramental opportunities for receiving it.
Mark Hart serves as executive vice president for Life Teen International, a Catholic youth ministry. A popular speaker, he has also written several books, including Blessed are the Bored in Spirit and Ask the Bible Geek. More information at lifeteen.com