How do I guide high school students and young adults who want to grow in their faith in this imperfect, at times infuriating, church? It is a question I pray and ponder on every year at this time, as I welcome a new class to the Catholic high school where I have taught theology for five years in South Tucson, Ariz. The students at Lasallian San Miguel Cristo Rey High School are some of the most authentic human beings I have been blessed to teach. They are mostly Hispanic and Native American; some come from refugee families. These young people are used to working hard for everything. There is no entitlement in them. They have a great sense of humor and are compassionate, even as they struggle with the cycle of poverty in their lives.
Life is not easy for many of these first-generation U.S. citizens. Every day they face the fear of someone they love being deported. There are members of the Tohono O’odham Native American tribe, who have not given up hope of working to achieve their dreams despite the challenges of alcoholism and gangs that plague their community. The strong connection these young people have to their families and the support they give to each other enables the core principles of Lasallian education to resonate in their lives: They strive for “Faith in the Presence of God”; they experience “Inclusive Community”; they value “Quality Education”; they live “Concern for the Poor and Social Justice”; and they practice “Respect for All Persons.”
How do I guide high school students and young adults who want to grow in their faith in this imperfect, at times infuriating, church?
Even though they may not recognize that in their lives in this Catholic high school they are participating in the church, I am convinced that a positive experience of church is found in their daily joys and struggles at San Miguel. All of us, students, faculty and staff, along with the Lasallian brothers, try to live out these core principles in everyday life. Still, many students are not convinced of what it means to be part of the church. I believe a new model of the church is needed if the faith is to be credible for my students and for all of the people of God. Influenced and informed by Cardinal Avery Dulles’s Models of the Church, I propose the paradigm of the “Church Penitent.”
Sinful but authentic and loved
One of my former students summed up in a sentence what such a church would look like. Thanking me for being his teacher, he said: “You loved us, even when we disappointed you.” (I can add that my students love me, even when I disappoint them.)
Is this not a call to be a penitent, to recognize that one fails, sins, disappoints and yet knows that despite it all, one is loved and forgiven? Is this not how we experience God’s love and forgiveness? The only real answer to the brokenness of the world is Jesus’ love, through us, his church. Yet when we as church fail to be authentic, to love and forgive each other, we, too, become broken. When those called to guide us in the church become the cause of sin, harm and evil, the brokenness leads to rejection, pain and distrust. Sometimes the damage seems beyond repair and reconciliation.
Due to sinful, broken and inauthentic behavior in the church, my students and many young adults struggle with how (or if) the church is relevant in guiding their lives. I teach them that they are part of the human history of the church’s journey of a faith relationship with God. This faith journey and relationship is an ongoing divine and human dynamic. The church, the community of believers, must search for the truth of who we are with God and each other.
I believe a new model of the church is needed if the faith is to be credible for my students and for all of the people of God.
How do we identify ourselves as church? What images do we use? The Second Vatican Council urged us to search for new images of the church so that it could become what it was intended to be from the beginning. The question my students struggle with is, what is an authentic identity of the church today? I believe that the only way the church can be relevant is if it embraces the model of a penitent.
The relevance of church as an instrument of forgiveness and grace of the Holy Spirit has long been understood through the sacrament of reconciliation. But the theologian Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S., suggests there are times when the church has historically lost the right to be the mediator of reconciliation. He gives as an example the church’s failure to forcefully challenge apartheid in South Africa. When the church is not clearly on the side of the poor and suffering, it contributes to oppression, and as Fr. Schreiter explains, there can be no reconciliation without justice. Such historical events reveal the flaws of the church.
Reconciling and rising above sin
The sex abuse scandal is another event that has caused the church to lose the right to be the mediator of reconciliation. Honest self-examination results in identifying with the sinner, as the sinner. Fr. Schreiter writes that if the church has a sense of its own sinfulness and a sense of its own limits, it will find its place in the process of reconciliation.
The sex abuse scandal has caused the church to lose the right to be the mediator of reconciliation.
To teach the students the paradigm of the Church Penitent it is imperative to look at the foundation of what such a church looks like. St. Francis of Assisi provides us with a historical example. He chose to live among the lepers of his time, to take on the stigma of being an outcast and to befriend the sinners, the wretched and the poor. He took on this way of life as a penitent so that he might imitate Jesus, who shared our humanity and atoned for the sins of all through his living, dying and rising. Jesus accepted the sins and sufferings of others through death so that new life could be born. This is the call of the penitent, to face sin, to reconcile and to rise above it with the grace God offers.
The proposed model of the church as penitent views the church as human beings in relationship with God. This relationship is shared with all God’s creatures. Teenagers and young adults grasp the importance of relationships. They are often the motivating factor of daily life. The Lasallian prayer we pray before every class, seven times a day, begins “Let us remember...that we are in the holy presence of God.” This is the prayer of relationships. It is about discovering God in each other, in the daily joys and sorrows and within oneself. It recognizes that when one does not find God in the other, in the challenges of the day or within oneself, something is not right.
Through meditation, prayer and reflection the students come to learn that the distinction of being human, being unique, having value and goodness can be affirmed appropriately only against the backdrop of honest reflection. We must also acknowledge our human unworthiness. St. Paul writes, “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rm 3:23-24). The church as penitent reflects both the human and divine character of the people of God.
Honesty with teenagers is the only thing that works. It is their honesty about who they are and who they hope to be that gives me hope.
Accepting oneself as justified through Jesus’ love and forgiveness, is embracing the model of church as penitent. To be a penitent is possible if there is a shift in attitude. Karl Rahner, S.J., the noted 20th-century theologian, insisted that solely in acknowledging the truth of our sin and guilt as members of the church will we be able to move on with renewal and conversion. The central element that binds us together as members of the church is the reconciling grace of Christ. Living authentically is recognizing one’s limits and sinfulness while knowing that God’s love and forgiveness is more powerful and available when we act with truth and honesty. Young people recognize this when it is part of their own experience, as do my students at San Miguel. When my students discover that they are loved even when they disappoint, they find themselves capable of loving those who fall short of their expectations.
Overcoming the spirit of evil
Pope Francis recognizes and advocates for this radical honesty and transparency in reponse to the sexual abuse crisis in the church. “Notwithstanding the measures already taken and the progress made in the area of preventing abuse, there is need for a constantly renewed commitment to the holiness of pastors, whose conformity to Christ the Good Shepherd is a right of the People of God,” the pope said at the close of the historic Vatican summit on the protection of minors in February. “Self-accusation is the beginning of wisdom and bound to the holy fear of God: learning how to accuse ourselves, as individuals, as institutions, as a society.”
This is God’s grace at work. The response to this gift of God’s grace for ourselves and as church is to be penitents who walk in the way of humility and profound love of Jesus and each other. As Pope Francis says, “We need to take up the spiritual means that the Lord himself teaches us: humiliation, self-accusation, prayer and penance. This is the only way to overcome the spirit of evil. It is how Jesus himself overcame it.”
As a Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity, embracing the life of a penitent is my reality. It is how I am able to teach my Lasallian Cristo Rey students. I am able to walk with them in need of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. I teach theology about a church that is in disarray. Honesty with teenagers is the only thing that works. It is their honesty about who they are and who they hope to be that gives me hope. We are the church, we are a human faith community, but God is with us. We fall and sin and get up because of God’s love through and in each other. It is in this that we embrace the life of penitents.
I believe we are now called, lay and clergy, to be credible witnesses to the healing love of God in this broken church and world. All of us are in constant need of purification and penance. The more conscious the church is of this need of confessing failings and sins, the more the church will be able to complete the mission of reconciling peoples with God and each other.