Sunday, May 7, 2017

Little Lambs

   Fourth Sunday of Easter   A 

I received the following email from a parishioner last week:

Hi Fr. Joe! You may not believe this…but I say the rosary every morning and on May 1st, I was thinking about how May is Mary's month and how I'd like to make a crown for the Blessed Mother statue at our house.  And actually, quite often, I visualize myself giving the Blessed Mother a hug for all she suffered seeing her son suffer.  So, imagine my surprise when I arrived at work on May 1st and a colleague called me to go and see her for a minute.  When I went to see her she showed me this picture in an old St. Joseph's Academy yearbook.  

It's curious because this statue of Our Lady has her holding a rosary…and the little girl is me.  I almost fell over.  I couldn't believe it.  I was hugging her then and I'm still hugging her now.

Doesn’t that just warm your heart?  It certainly did mine!  And receiving this message and the photo from about 40 year ago got me thinking, too:  What are the chances, 40 years from now, that the pastor of Malone will receive a message like this?  It’s certainly a point to ponder…

I think we can agree that, in the last 40 years, things have certainly changed.  The world has changed so much.  Our country has changed a lot.  There has even been some notable change in our Church.  And family life sure a changed quite a bit in the last 40, 50, 60 years.

But something that hasn’t changed much during that time is the way we’ve approached the religious education of our children.  We’re still using an essentially classroom-based model: teachers and students, lessons and books.  And since it hasn’t changed, while just about everything else connected to it has, it’s no longer working.  It’s sad to say, but for many of our youngsters, the parish “Sunday school” program is their only contact with the Church—with God and the things of God—and that means they associate the Catholic faith with sitting at a desk.  Kids are bored, parents are frustrated, and recruiting volunteers to serve as catechists gets more difficult every year.  Add to that the fact that Catherine Suprenant, our Director of Christian Formation, who’s done such a great job since she arrived last August, is leaving us on Tuesday, and it becomes pretty clear: it’s high time for us to make a change.

The traditional model of religious education still does a fairly good job of getting our kids to learn various Catholic doctrines.  There’s no question: that’s rather important.  If they stick with it a few years, most of them can tell you there are 7 sacraments and 10 commandments.  Borrowing the language of this Sunday’s gospel, they’ve learned a few things about the Shepherd.  But do they really know the Shepherd?  Can they recognize his voice?  Being able to repeat some of the Shepherd’s words is a matter of basic memorization, but knowing the Shepherd’s voice is a matter of a relationship.  Teaching our kids by rote puts religion in league with reading, writing, and ’rithmetic; but forming them is a matter of faith, hope, and love.  One touches the mind only; the other involves the heart.

This “Good Shepherd Sunday” is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.  We’re all keenly aware of the notable decrease in recent years of young Catholics answering the call to give their lives in service to Christ and his Church.  But how can we expect them to even consider a life as a priest or deacon or consecrated religious—or, for that matter, as Christian husbands, wives, and parents—if we haven’t succeeded in making genuine Christians out of them in the first place?  No one gives their life for anything unless they’ve first fallen in love with it.

To keep getting emails like the one I shared with you today, we have to help our kids fall in love with Jesus, Mary, and the Church—in a away that begins in youth, but lasts for a lifetime.  It’s so important that we help the littlest lambs in the Lord’s flock to get close enough to him that they recognize their Shepherd’s voice!  There are the voices of so many strangers—all of them thieves and robbers—insistently calling out to our young people to lead them in other, dangerous directions.  But the voice of Jesus is the only one that leads to a new and more abundant life.

Considering the lengths to which we’ll go to get our young people on the team or into a good college, shouldn’t we devote even more effort and energy into getting them into heaven?

As I consider that cute photo, my thoughts turn not only to the little girl whose has now grown into a woman of faith, but to whoever it was that stood on the other side of the camera.  Her mother?  Her father?  Or maybe a grandparent?  It’s fairly possible that they posed the shot…but even if they didn’t, they surely planted the seeds of faith which inspired that child.  And that’s something which has not changed: the fostering of children’s relationship with our Lord, our Lady, and the Church happens best when it takes place within the context of their primary human relationship, which is their family.  Nothing that happens in a parish program can substitute for what can only happen at home! 

While no final decisions have yet been made, the new approach we’re seriously considering starting next fall is much more focused on teaching parents and grandparents and parishioners than it is on directly teaching our children (since we can’t pass on that which we do not have for ourselves).  More than ever, our focus needs to be on the entire family.  Watch for details as they become available in the weeks and months ahead, and start considering now what you personally can do to help pass on our precious Catholic faith to future generations. 

Here’s the rest of that email:

Which leads me to my question…out of sheer curiosity, do you have any idea where this statue may be?  This picture was taken behind St. Joseph's Academy about 40 years ago.  In this month of Mary, I'd just love to give her another hug, for old times' sake. 

I’m very happy to report that we know right where that statue is: it was moved to St. Joseph’s Cemetery on Fort Covington Street some years ago.  And I’m fairly confident our Blessed Mother will be receiving a crown of flowers there real soon—if she hasn’t already—and that she’ll being getting a hug.

Let us commit ourselves anew to doing all that we possibly can to foster such life-long faith and devotion in the young lambs of Jesus’ flock. 

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