Photo: Felix Carroll
Answers to the Tough Questions Youth Ask
For the past two-plus years, Marian seminarian Br. Chris Alar, MIC, has traveled with the Marians' Parish Mission Team speaking with adults and youth all across the United States. His interactions with youth, in particular, stand out as some of the most powerful experiences he's had in his religious life and point to reasons for optimism as well as for deep concern.
"Parents and Church leaders face huge challenges when it comes to our youth," Br. Chris says. "I'm seeing so many kids asking questions about the Faith. They're growing up in such a secular world, and they're confused, and they want answers, and we need to have those answers." In the following Q&A, he shares his thoughts.
Brother Chris, first the good news. Share with us what you find encouraging with regards to our youth?
By far the most rewarding is seeing the youth preparing for the sacraments. Through Holy Communion and Confession, they will be guaranteed the grace of God, and in Confirmation, they will be sealed in the Holy Spirit. So the rewarding part is knowing what they're about to receive. Also, that they want to hear from us regarding Church teachings — even if it's just to challenge us — we should be encouraged by that. Another reason to be hopeful is seeing how the youth have embraced the pro-life movement. After all these years, the tide is turning in favor of the pro-life movement, largely because so many young Catholics are determined to fight against the injustice of abortion.
Having said that, in what ways has your experiences with the youth been disconcerting?
They face huge obstacles to holiness every single day. Sexual imagery, materialism, and immoral behavior have been almost deified in our culture. And these things are coming at them from all directions — from television, movies, music, advertisements, and the Internet. Everyday they are bombarded with messages that go against Church teaching. God has been shoved aside. The youth can be treated as outcasts for daring to show they put God and faith above all things. Sinful behavior is celebrated. The youth especially are highly impressionable. What our culture teaches — what it imposes upon us — is: "I make my own truth. There is no absolute truth"; that "your truth is just as valid as anyone else's truth"; and "don't force your values on me." This all can lead to a belief that "anything goes, morally." Therefore, if you speak out against, say, contraception or homosexuality, you are being "intolerant." Parents, particularly, have a lot of work ahead of them to counteract all these powerful and conflicting messages their children are receiving.
So what's your advice to parents?
Number one is prayer. We have to pray for our country and our leaders everyday. We have to beg the Lord for mercy and the conversion of hearts. If every family prayed together, the whole world would change. Number two, parents need to instill authority — for their children's own good. They must say "no" sometimes. If their children are watching a show or listening to music that is inappropriate, tell them "no." If their children are constantly putting their own needs above the needs of others, tell them "no." Number three, lead by example. A child will most likely grow up sharing their parents' value system. We have to be way more attuned to these things or we're going to lose them.
But since the age of the Enlightenment, and more so now in the Information Age, we no longer take things we're told at face value. We are a people who demand proof of assertions. Catholics, of course, are not immune to this, particularly the youth.
Absolutely. Let me just say, first, the Church's own views on what we call "hot-button" issues are greatly misunderstood and misrepresented. Catholic leaders, educators, and parents all have to brush up on our catechesis. We have truth on our side — and logic. We need to be able to speak knowledgably about our faith. We cannot just say, "Don't do drugs, don't have premarital sex, don't support gay marriage, don't have abortions" without explaining why.
So let's tackle the "hot-button" issues, beginning with contraception.
When using contraception what you're doing is your saying "I want to give myself to you, but not completely, I'm going to put up a barrier between us." With this barrier, you separate the "unitive" — that is, designed to unite — from the "procreative," which are two purposes of marriage. You're blocking your love from being so great that it can create a third person. Only God — not a piece of plastic or a pill — should determine when life should or shouldn't enter the world.
Contraception actually leads to a mentality in which abortion is viewed as a valid choice, because when a couple is not open to life, the mentality can easily become "We will terminate this pregnancy because it wasn't supposed to happen." What we need to do a better job teaching is that life is God's property, not ours. Therefore, the child has rights that even the mother cannot take away. Since life begins at conception, abortion is murder. Now, what I get asked a lot by the girls is "What about conception brought about through rape or incest?" What God wants us to know is we already have one victim, so why would we want to make a second victim of violence? Abortion is an act of violence against an innocent life, and at no time can we justify the killing of an innocent person for the crime of another. Victims of rape or incest often say that abortion made things worse. The beautiful thing about God is He will always make a greater good out of even the worst evil. So the child is that greater good. The ones who keep the child have the opportunity to see a greater good and — importantly — will also be more likely to forgive.
How do the girls you explain this to receive it?
I have gotten through solidly to probably a third of them. The other third will really think about it, and to the final third, no matter what you say to them, it will not matter — they will be obstinate. The girls have brought this up — that a woman has a right to control her own body. But lovingly I point out to them that the child's body is not the mother's body. It is a separate human being. The child is an independent union of body and soul.
Substance abuse is a form of self-destruction. When we abuse alcohol and narcotics, we are destroying our bodies, which are created by God to be temples of the Holy Spirit. What happens with substance abuse is that you trade your freedom for slavery. Slavery in this case is where you become so attached to the drug or alcohol you cannot live without it. You're not free to live without it. The drug becomes your "god," and this is a violation of the First Commandment. Drugs and alcohol join sex and pornography in having the ability to replace God in people's lives.
Let me begin by saying this: When I become a priest — God willing — there will be no kid who comes to my confessional who I will not have the ultimate empathy for when it comes to their struggles with chastity. But what I've learned is that only through God's grace can we live a chaste life. How do we achieve that grace? By asking for it. I'm finding very few people who are asking for that grace. The Church also teaches we need this grace even after we join in holy matrimony. Why? Because sexuality is not simply a source of pleasure. It's designed by God as a sacred covenant, an act of love shared in union with God. It's a gift from God geared to the innermost being of the person. That means that by engaging in sex outside of marriage, we commit purely a physical, selfish act that's devoid of God. Our body seeks pleasure for pleasure's sake only, which again is a form of slavery.
So let's turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Conjugal love ... aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility" (1643). What I tell teens is that through marital love only, a man and woman make a covenant that says, "I am one with you, in body and soul. I want to spend my entire life with you. I love you so much that I want to create another life with you. I want another one like you in the world." What's interesting is that in the marital act we're most like the Trinity because in the Trinity the love between the Father and Son is so great it generates a third person, the Holy Spirit. That's what's so important about marriage. In the Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church there is a quote I love: "I do not know yet whom I will marry, but I do not want to betray my future [spouse] today."
Okay, what about gay marriage?
There is no such thing as "gay marriage." The definition of marriage is that it is both "unitive" and "procreative." Therefore, gay marriage cannot meet these criteria. The reason God created man and woman was love. And He instituted the Church and the sacraments out of love. So the purpose of marriage is love. Any true marriage built on spousal love has to be open to the creation of life. Two men or two women cannot do this.
This opens up the question regarding the Church's views of homosexuality. Are you asked about this?
Absolutely. The question often is, "Well, if God created us in His image and likeness, how can we be against homosexuality when homosexuals are created by God?" The answer is that the Church isn't against homosexuals or homosexual tendencies; the tendencies are not the sin in the eyes of the Church; rather, it's the homosexual act. If we look at Matthew 19:12, Jesus teaches that anyone who has been born in a state in which they cannot wed — as the Church defines marriage — they are called by God to live a very special vocation of celibacy. Like religious, they are called to rise above sexual passions. What a beautiful gift to God — a fiat, a "yes" to God — to do His will. When we can do His will, it's a greater reward than if we act upon these passions. Whether it's premarital sex, gay sex, or masturbation, these are instances in which we allow the flesh to control the spirit. In my own life as a religious, I have finally found a surefire regiment to control the flesh: fasting, prayer, and begging for the grace to be chaste. Otherwise, the desires of the flesh become a monster; it's hungry and you feed it. When you dedicate yourself to being united to God, you have a winning combination.
And so, again, how do the youth you speak with receive this argument?
Same thing. A third of them will agree with the Church's position, a third will consider it and grapple with it, and a third appears to be set, not believing the Church's teaching regarding this matter. We have a lot of work ahead of us.
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