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: Historical clarity and today’s Catholic contentions

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One of the curiosities of the 21st-century Catholic debate is that many Catholic traditionalists (especially integralists) and a high percentage of Catholic progressives make the same mistake in analyzing the cause of today’s contentions within the Church — or to vary the old fallacy taught in Logic 101, they think in terms of post Concilium ergo propter Concilium [everything that’s happened after the Council has happened because of the Council]. And inside that fallacy is a common misreading of modern Catholic history. The traditionalists insist that everything was fine before the Council (which many of them therefore regard as a terrible mistake); the progressives agree that the pre-Vatican II Church was a stable institution but deplore that stability as rigidity and desiccation.

But that’s not the way things were pre-Vatican II, as I explain at some length and with some engaging stories in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books). And no one knew the truth about pre-Vatican II Catholicism better than the man who was elected pope during the Council and guided Vatican II through its last three sessions, St. Paul VI.

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII, thought to be an elderly placeholder, stunned both the Church and the world by announcing his intention to summon the 21st ecumenical council. That night, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (who would be known as Paul VI four and a half years later), called an old friend. An experienced churchman who had long served Pius XII as chief of staff, Montini saw storm clouds on the horizon: “This holy old boy,” he said of John XXIII, “doesn’t know what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”

That shrewd observation turned out to be spot on –– and not simply because of the Council, but because of the bees and hornets that had been buzzing around the ecclesiastical nest for well over 100 years.

Contrary to both traditionalist and progressive misconceptions, Catholicism was not a placid institution, free of controversy and contention, prior to Vatican II. As I show in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, there was considerable intellectual ferment in the Church during the mid-19th century, involving great figures like the recently-canonized John Henry Newman, the German bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (grandfather of modern Catholic social thought), and the Italian polymath Antonio Rosmini (praised by John Paul II in the 1999 encyclical, Faith and Reason, and beatified under Benedict XVI). That ferment accelerated during the 25 year pontificate of Leo XIII, who launched what I dub the “Leonine Revolution,” challenging the Church to engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic tools in order to convert the modern world and lay a firmer foundation for its aspirations.

American Catholicism, heavily focused on institution-building, was largely unaware of the sharp-edged controversies (and ecclesiastical elbow-throwing) that followed Leo XIII’s death in 1903. Those controversies, plus the civilization-shattering experience of two world wars in Europe, plus a rapid secularization process in Old Europe that began in the 19th century, set the stage for John XXIII’s epic opening address to Vatican II. There, the Pope explained what he envisioned Vatican II doing: gathering up the energies let loose by the Leonine Revolution and focusing them through the prism of an ecumenical council, which he hoped would be a Pentecostal experience energizing the Church with new evangelical zeal.

John XXIII understood that the Gospel proposal could only be made by speaking to the modern world in a vocabulary the modern world could hear. Finding the appropriate grammar and vocabulary for contemporary evangelization didn’t mean emptying Catholicism of its content or challenge, however. As the Pope insisted, the perennial truths of the faith were to be expressed with the “same meaning” and the “same judgment.” Vatican II, in other words, was to foster the development of doctrine, not the deconstruction of doctrine. And the point of that doctrinal development was to equip the Church for mission and evangelization, for the modern world would be converted by truth, not ambiguity or confusion.

Over the past six and a half years, it’s become abundantly clear that more than a few Catholics, some quite prominently placed, still don’t get this history. Nor do the more vociferous elements in the Catholic blogosphere. Which is why I hope The Irony of Modern Catholic History helps facilitate a more thoughtful debate on the Catholic present and future, through a better understanding of the Catholic past.