Q&A: We must teach young people the value of suffering

Father Peter Cameron, founding editor-in-chief of Magnificat, to speak on evangelizing youth in Denver April 9

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Father Peter Cameron, OP, spoke to the Denver Catholic about his upcoming presentation for the St. John Paul II Lecture Series in Denver April 9, titled “Evangelizing Youth Today.” Father Cameron is the founding editor-in-chief of Magnificat and currently serves as the Director of Formation for Hard as Nails Ministries, a nation-wide apostolate for young people. The interview has been edited for brevity.

Denver Catholic: Based on your experience, what would you say are some of the greatest needs of young people in the Church in the United States?

Father Peter Cameron, OP, is the Director of Formation for Hard as Nails Ministries and the founding editor-in-chief of Magnificat. (Photo provided)

Father Peter Cameron: I would say one of the greatest needs facing young people in the United States is loneliness. Loneliness isn’t simply the result of being without people in our lives or being solitary. It’s possible to succumb to loneliness when we have people around us, when we have family. Part of the problem comes from the fact that young people don’t have someone to give them that gaze of love and appreciation, and similarly, they have no one that maybe listens to them.

Sometimes young people can be carrying very hefty burdens and even their best friends don’t know what they’re going through. These issues are never talked about and these young people feel completely isolated with this burden that they’re forced to carry along. I think that’s really the principal issue. In reading the document of the Synod on Young People, I noticed that that was one of the principal concerns listed, as well.

DC: What aspect from the Synod on Young People do you think can be especially useful in evangelization?

FPC: One of the points is that nobody can evangelize a young person like another young person. As the document points out, when young people speak about their experience, it is something that can’t be discounted or debated. So, if evangelization starts with presenting arguments or theological judgments, it’s possible that people will not pay attention. But when someone speaks about their own sufferings, how they overcame them, how that led them to Jesus Christ, etc., this is something that nobody can gainsay.

And secondly, that it is important to implement new methods for listening to young people. It means being willing to suffer with them and not be intimidated by their problems. I think there’s a tendency to give up too easily on  young people because of their struggles. But I think the job of the modern-day evangelist is primarily to walk with the person and love them, bring them to the awareness that they’re amazing, that they’re valuable, not because of what they have or what they have accomplished, but simply because God has loved them into existence, that the person is a child of God and there’s nothing anyone can do to ever change that.

DC: How does the Hard as Nails Ministries carry out this mission of evangelizing youth so successfully?

FPC: The Hard as Nails Ministries is a national evangelization apostolate with a special outreach to young people, and particularly young people who are suffering, especially from anxiety, depression, bullying, being marginalized, addiction, etc.

What Hard as Nails has been doing since 2002, through the founder Justin Fatica, is going to people who are suffering, suffering with them and giving them a chance to voice their challenges, and then we teach them how to suffer well and give them the assurance that their suffering has a value. People will leave some of our events feeling grateful for the suffering in their lives. We want to bring people to the Cross of Jesus Christ and help them see the good in suffering.

We also have the Hard as Nails missionaries, who are 18- to 20-year-olds, who sacrifice a year of their lives and undergo a very rigorous formation: spiritual, pastoral, human and even physical — all of this geared to being able to stand in front of young people and to love them, care for them, listen to them, and teach them a way of embracing their suffering through a life of faith, a life of prayer, that they themselves model.

When they have gone through their training, they come out very well-equipped for going on the road and taking on any group of young people that is willing to listen to them, whether it be a public or Catholic high school, or a confirmation group. We call them Carmelite Marines because they pray nearly three hours a day and they’re very well versed in ways of prayer and Scripture, but they’re also tough and actually thrive on being rejected and humiliated. EWTN was so entranced by the Hard as Nails approach to evangelization that they produced a television series a few years ago called “You are Amazing with Justin Fatica,” which still runs on the EWTN website and on YouTube.

DC: What are some of the greatest fruits you have seen from this ministry?

FPC: Sometimes, on the spot, young people will admit suffering, pain, hurt or brokenness that they’ve never been able to talk about before, and you can just see the weight being lifted from them. We know it’s real because a major aspect of the Hard as Nails approach to evangelization is a very extensive follow-up program that provides everyone who comes to the ministry with a customized Hard as Nails Bible, containing the fundamental knowledge and Catechism needed for living a life of faith. Most importantly, the young people are taught to stay together as Catholics through a spiritual exercise developed by Hard as Nails called “Passion,” in which they share about their lives in a group, and then read the Gospel and reflect on it in the light of what people have shared. One of the greatest fruits is that these Passion groups now exist in various parts of the country. And there are young people who are in them and who are running them.

DC: Is there anything else you would like to add?

FPC: I give a lot of talks to priests and they are very often fatalistic about the possibility of evangelizing young people. And I think that they consider the lure of the world to be greater than anything that we or the Gospel can propose to them, and it’s simply not so. Once a young person is paid attention to and their dignity is shown to them and they’re cared for, something breaks open and you just see them radiate. It’s not difficult to do that with a young person. So, I hope that the talk will be an encouragement to anyone who listens to it to be certain that they can be that message of grace for youth, especially those who are suffering — that the love of Jesus Christ that we have is exactly what they’re waiting for, and that we’re courageous, authentic and obedient enough to offer it to young people.

St. John Paul II Lecture Series

Tuesday, April 9, 7p.m.

St. John Vianney Refectory.

Visit archden.org/lecture to RSVP

COMING UP: From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

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Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw hundreds of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

SEARCHING FOR FULFILMENT

Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but as a family they did not practice any religion or faith.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But near the end of her junior year a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide, and Sister Mary Gianna said her senior year she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

RCIA, NET and DLJC

After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2010, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.

CHAIN REACTIONS

Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“Unfortunately the two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “However, Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start its own chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has shown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”