The Human Person Fully Alive

The purpose of personal vocation is the joy that comes from fullness of life.

“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn 15:11).

A human being fully alive is a joyful person. If you’ve ever met one, you know that. Sadly, many people have not. We live in a culture where the unique, divine purpose of every life is not recognized or embraced. We want to change that.

Uur mission to help people – especially young people – to know, embrace, and live to the full their unique, personal vocations.

Personal Vocation

Personal Vocation: The Primal Call

Personal vocation is different than “state of life” (married, single, priest, or religious). It’s different from work or career. It’s different from the universal call to holiness.

Unique, personal vocation is your particular way of being, your particular way of living out all three of those definitions of “vocation” above. Personal vocation includes them because it comes before them. It is the primal call of each person. It’s the way that each person was created and therefore the path that each person must walk in order to love and give themselves completely.

Each person’s mission is radically unique. You – and only you – were created to love in the specific way that only you can. You have to understand this first before you can understand and properly discern questions like state of life, career, or in what particular way God has called you to holiness.

Personal vocation means that of of 1,000 priests, there are 1,000 different ways of being a priest. It means that a million mothers will each have a personal vocation to be mother in a unique way. It means that my personal vocation as an entrepreneur is different than the vocation of any other entrepreneur in the world. And your personal vocation as a student is a radically personal one, too.

Who we are determines the way that we make choices. My unique mission in life impacts everything – every day, every hour, every minute of my life. It affects my decisions about the food I eat and drink, the way that I pray, the way that I love.

The Urgent Need to Focus on the Unique Person

Our world is in desperate need of an embrace of personal vocation. It allows us to see past labels – Republic, Democrat, rich, poor, black, white. It allows us to see the person in his or her unique nature, called to love, called to eternal life as we are. In gazing upon the face of another and entering into his life through empathy, we open ourselves up to the transforming power of each encounter.

We hope that you’ll allow us to accompany you on this journey of discernment. Then, together, we can help each person in our local communities and in the universal Church to become who they are. 

 

Meditation on Personal Vocation

The following reflection on personal vocation is from Cardinal John Henry Newman and can be found in his Meditations on Christian Doctrine.

Meditation & Prayer for Personal Vocation

1. God was all-complete, all-blessed in Himself; but it was His will to create a world for His glory. He is Almighty, and might have done all things Himself, but it has been His will to bring about His purposes by the beings He has created. We are all {301} created to His glory—we are created to do His will. I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has; whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by my name.

2. God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.

3. Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He {302} may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—still He knows what He is about.

O Adonai, O Ruler of Israel, Thou that guidest Joseph like a flock, O Emmanuel, O Sapientia, I give myself to Thee. I trust Thee wholly. Thou art wiser than I—more loving to me than I myself. Deign to fulfil Thy high purposes in me whatever they be—work in and through me. I am born to serve Thee, to be Thine, to be Thy instrument. Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see—I ask not to know—I ask simply to be used.

John Henry Cardinal Newman, From Meditations on Christian Doctrine

cardinal john henry newman

Knowing Mentees Through Achievement Narrative

Mentors who want to get to know their mentees can and should ask a variety of questions which help their mentees to tell their story.

At times, mentors need to ask closed, yes or no, questions. These are often sprinkled throughout our engagement with one another. Have their place, but usually not useful for the objective of facilitating authentic sharing.

Leading questions are more problematic from the standpoint of helping the mentee to authentically share because through them the question asker tends to impute his/her own interpretation or agenda into the person’s story. Avoid them!

For the purpose of really getting to know the mentee and his/her story, open-ended questions are much better. Practice them!

The Best Kind of Open-Ended Question

I’d like to share with you the fruit of a certain kind of open-ended question – those designed to draw out actions that the person loves to do which bring a deep sense of fulfillment. These are called achievement stories using achievement in a broad sense of the word.

My own mission in life as a coach and a consultant and a parent is to help people recognize and develop their unique patterns of motivated gifts so that they can serve others according to them.

When we open up a person’s stories of achievement these unique gifts begin to emerge. Not time for a full-scale treatment of this process but let me share with you some of the many ways that drawing on a mentee’s achievement story enables knowledge of the mentee, blesses the mentee, and enriches the whole mentor relationship.

It engages the person around the memory of action that, ultimately, was full of joy and fulfillment. In recollecting the memory the person in many ways re-presents it and has the opportunity, at least in part, to relive it.

What a gift!

Story, Centered on Deeply Fulfilling Action

Now, the achievement story is deeply personal and subjective, but also is about person being in action where they often forget about themselves. There is often an ecstatic aspect of the action. Thus, the person opens up. Bears his/her soul.

Because the achievement story is about what person did well and enjoyed doing it is often about their unique strengths. So it is incredibly positive and affirming.

This provides insight, incredible insight, into how the person really wants to engage. So, the mentor begins to understand not just the person’s story but how to effectively engage, teach, even manage the person if management is a part of the relationship.

Finally, the very process of people recollecting their activities of joyful action and telling those stories can be hugely revelatory for the person telling the story.

My experience is that actually people seldom are asked to share their achievement stories and that when people respond to the question “tell me about yourself” they don’t often choose to unfold achievement stories.

Thus, many folks have not really taken the time to reflect upon them and what such stories tell about how God has designed them.

A) Think back and tell me about an activity you have deeply enjoyed doing and believe you have done well

B) what exactly did you do?

C) what was so deeply satisfying about it?

When you ask them those simple open ended questions, especially about several different activities, many people experience for the first time a strong sense of a pattern of unique design. As they speak they see the pattern emerge, they feel the contours of their heart oriented in a clear direction, gain a sense of God’s unique design.

Finally, this series of open ended achievement oriented questions, if asked by an attentive and empathic listener is an act of great love for the other, a love oriented toward the flourishing of the person, a love that seeks for the other to be revealed according to God’s design and to fulfill that design.

The Achievement Story

How can mentors authentically get to know their mentees? We believe that really getting to know another means to understand their story – which is, as Norris Clarke describes it – “the key moments and phases of our own past, so that the meaningful pattern hidden within them emerges”

Asking Good Questions

Open ended questions oriented around the person telling stories about themselves is the right direction to go for mentors who want to understand their mentees. In this article, though, I’m going to introduce a specific kind of story which is especially powerful for mentees to unfold themselves and for mentors to really grasp essential features of the mentee’s unique personhood.

Let’s consider a scenario where a catechist doing youth ministry is trying to get to know a young woman, Maria, that she has recently met. The catechist asks her, “so tell me about yourself.”

Now, what kinds of responses is she likely to get?

– Family or place of origin (I come from an Irish Catholic background. I’m from Virginia)

– Conversion story, walk from dark to light (recently come clean from drug use and back in Church!)

– Schooling (went to Jefferson and Lee High School where I was in the band)

– Relationships (well, my family and I are very close. I have a steady boyfriend who is really supportive. I’m a dog person and have a little pug named Jasper)

– Major interests (I am a dancer. Love sports. Soccer has been a big part of my life ever since I was 7 years old)

It is certainly true that all of these dimensions of the Maria’s life are important to her. It is certainly true that the catechist is learning about Maria as she shares one or all these aspects of her life. It is also true that the catechist who really wants to learn about Maria will and should learn these features of her life.

Achievement Stories

But what is the best way for mentors to quickly and deeply get to know their mentees?

The kind of story I want to now introduce provides an excellent way to do that. It helps to unfold the core aspects of the mentee’s personality.

This is the achievement story.

achievement-st-george

By “achievement” I simply mean an activity that the person enjoyed doing and believe he or she did well. Such an activity could be anything, just so long as it action oriented (not simply a passive experience like soaking up the sun’s rays on a beach or vegging out with a 6 hour movie marathon) and brought the client a sense of fulfillment.

Before I describe the kinds of open-ended questions used for drawing out a story of achievement I want to pause on a key mode of knowing that Aristotelian philosophers identified, a key mode of knowing that we find in St. Thomas Aquinas work:

A being’s action reveals its essence: agere sequitur esse. Action follows being.

This means that when we get clear on a being’s action we can see its essence.

When Aquinas drew on this term he mainly employed it to describe the essence of things at the species level. The action of human beings indicates that our essence is that of embodied rationality. The action of plants indicates plant essence.

But this same principle that action reveals essence applies at the individual level. We can deeply get to know a person by exploring his/her authentic action! We all now that some of our actions are half-hearted and lazy, some of our actions are done out of compulsion, some we have a sense of hating, some we do half-well. But these actions do not reveal us like the action of deeply satisfying engagement. When we recollect stories of such joyful activities and then began to recount the narrative, we express unique essence.

In other words, we recount those things that we had a deep affective longing to do, a love for.

Expressing Unique Essence

Such stories are deeply powerful for shedding light on those key aspects of unique personhood addressed by Paul VI in his encyclical On the Development of Peoples, in which he said that in the design of God “at birth, everyone is granted, in germ, a set of aptitudes and qualities for him to bring to fruition.”

Now it is of course true that one achievement story told by the mentee to his/her mentor is not some kind of relational magic that always enables the mentor to plumb the depths of the other, but I can tell you in over 20 years of working with persons as a coach, a teacher, and a consultant that drawing out a person’s achievement stories is an incredibly powerful way of getting to know him/her and quickly.

There are three basic questions that can help you quickly and powerful draw out and understand an individual’s uniqueness (these were developed by Arthur Miller, Jr. and described in the book The Power of Uniqueness):

1) “Tell me about an activity, from any time of life, that you really enjoyed doing and believe you did well?”

2) “Describe what you actually did.”

3) “What did you most enjoy about that activity?”

 

Asking Good Questions

Mentors, especially when they are in teaching mode, will often ask questions of their mentees for educational purposes. Such questions can catalyze in the mentee thinking about a subject the mentor wants him/her to more deeply understand. Such questions are obviously important in a teaching context but we will be addressing the value of questions for really getting to know the other, especially of their story, their narrative that ties together the key moments or phases of their past.

asking-good-questions

Socrates questioning people in the Areopagus

Three Kinds of Questions

1. Closed Questions

Essence of a closed question is that it can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with closed questions. They are useful when targeted information is needed. For example, nurses have got to understand a patient’s health history exactly and so they will often ask a series of closed questions: Have you had diabetes? Have any relatives had cancer? Are you allergic to any drugs?

For mentors, seeking to know their mentees, there are times when closed questions are right and proper. For example: “Have you been baptized? Confirmed? Do you go to Mass on Sundays? Have you been a Catholic all of your life?

Closed questions can also be used to clarify a person’s comments. For example, the mentee might be discussing about how much time she has spent reading catechetical material and the mentor asks: “You have read the Catechism of the Catholic Church then?

The problem with closed questions, from the standpoint, of getting to know the mentee is as follows: seldom reveal the contours and trajectory of a person’s story.

  • They center on fulfilling the question askers desire for particular information but do not result in drawing out the narrative arc of a person’s life, the plot lines.
  • They result in information about the person, but not a depth of interior life.
  • Question asker is in control with such questions, not the one responding. The parameters are tight. Basically, just “yes” or “no.” As such the questions do not provide a context for the respondent to truly open up.

2. Leading Questions

These are questions that suggest or prompt an answer. They are more open ended than closed questions but with them question askers steer the response in directions they believe are valuable or provide a set of answers they believe are correct.

Often leading questions are framed up on the heels of statements the question asker makes about his/her own preferences that suggest the “correct” answer.

“Isn’t the music at Mass wonderful?!”

“I feel such a change of mood in the country after the election, don’t you?”

“F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, portrays such a moral wasteland. I would not let my younger kids read it. Would you?”

Leading questions are also often framed up as options:

“Are you a fan of country music, hard rock, soft rock or classical?”

Journalists do this very frequently frame up options during their interviews:

Interview with a soldier who wrote a memoir about his experiences during the war in Iraq: “Was your decision to enlist as a young man more from a sense of patriotism or more from a sort of boyish desire for adventure?”

These kinds of questions are a serious pet peeve of mine because the answer could be both or neither! It could be that the young man was told by God to go. Could be that he needed the money!

Now, there is a time and a place for leading questions if they are offered with sincere respect for the person, a desire for their good. Parents often need to ask leading questions to guide effectively their children, for example.

But the problem with leading questions is that they reflect the mind and opinions of the question asker and often do not succeed in authentically drawing out the respondent’s own mind, belief, opinions, feelings.

3. Open-ended questions

These are questions that encourage a full, meaningful answer using the subject’s own knowledge and/or feelings.

“Tell me about yourself.” “What is your background?” “Why did you come here?”

Such questions invite a depth of response. They do not interject the question asker’s own beliefs or opinions into the answer. They don’t frame up options for the respondent to choose from.

Now, open-ended questions that are without context can be too broad at times and thus confusing. For example, a question that comes from Dr. Vincent Hendricks, a professor of logic, to illustrate this point: “what is the world’s most important doctrine?” Doctrine about what? Political, religious, economic? Such a question is too open ended.

So, the best kind of open-ended questions do provide context, a basic orientation. In this sense they do lead, but in a way that invites the person to authentically share. They lay the table of a topic minimally but for the sake of drawing out full response from the other about that topic.

 

 

To Know Another

What do we mean when we talk about knowing the other?

“Hey, do you know Deanna?” “Yeah, she was my sister’s close friend back in high school and was often at our house.” “I’ve known Rod and Tony for about 5 years.” Or, as I’ve sometimes heard since living in Steubenville: a person get’s introduced to another and the other says “Good to know you.”

But what precisely do we know when we really know another person?

Rockwell-Father-Son-Mentee

To Know Another Person

We are not going to deeply explore the meaning of “know” in this context. Books beyond counting have been written about epistemology-the study of knowledge– and we could get hung up very easily here.

I simply mean that to know a person means you have developed a relationship with the person (to some degree or another) and that you perceive the truth or nature of that person.

So, if I have a relationship with the storeowner, who is friendly and shares me all about his wife and kids, and then later I find out that he was actually a foreign spy with no family I would say I did not know him at all. It was a false relationship, false information about him.

Knowledge is in degrees of course. And this is certainly the case in our understanding of other people.

But what is it about a person that is most true of them?

1. The person’s relationships, especially those that are most foundational and enduring, are constitutive of the person. We have no being at all without relationships and are richly, deeply situated within a whole web of relationships not just with concrete persons like parents, siblings, friends, but with culture, nation, etc. With his God especially.

2. The person’s essential characteristics. General traits they share with others. These help us to know person but bluntly.   To say a person is extraverted or friendly doesn’t say much. Those characteristics most authentic to the person – these are much truer than general characteristics.

Every Life is a Vocation

“In the design of God, every man is called upon to develop himself, for every life is a vocation. At birth, everyone is granted, in germ, a set of aptitudes and qualities for him to bring to fruition. Their coming to maturity, which will be the result of education received from the environment and personal efforts will allow each man to direct himself toward the destiny intended for him by his Creator.” From On the Development of Peoples, Paul VI.

Here we have the Holy Father Paul VI noting how essential characteristics of the person designed by God, given by God are clearly constitutive of his unique nature. Key part of his destiny. He also speaks about how these develop in relationship with “the environment” which obviously includes a whole host of social, cultural, historical factors.

The Human Story

But the place in which the person’s relationships and essential characteristics especially come alive are in what we call the person’s story. In their “story” we see the dynamic between their intrinsic energy to be a certain way in a social, cultural, historical, familial context. We see the dynamic of others acting upon the person and the person in their own self-creative freedom responding to such action and initiating other projects. But the story connects all this dynamic exchange in a holistic fashion.

In common speech we will often say as move to get to know another: “What is your story?”

Much research – much good research – has been done in contemporary psychology about the importance of story for persons to build a strong sense of identity and, of course, a means to share that identity with others.

Much of this work is highly consistent with Catholic anthropology. But I want to close this section not by appeal to a psychologist but one of my favorite teachers in philosophy, Norris Clarke, S.J. Let’s listen:

Paul VI spoke about how we are designed with a set of aptitudes and qualities. Note here that Father Clarke highlights the meaningful pattern of our life revealed by story, a pattern which surely includes the emergence of those latent unique gifts.

Conclusion

Our lives are revealed through story to others, but the very process of formulating story is important, Father Clarke believes, because it also enables us to be fully self-conscious of who we are.

If we as mentors are eager to truly hear the story of our mentees the opportunity here is that they will grow in self-awareness of who they are at the same time as we grow in knowledge of them.

Inscape: The Distinctive Design of Every Creature

The word “inscape” was coined by the priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The universe was spoken into being by the divine Word, according to Christian theology. Hopkins developed this logocentric understanding of creation – every individual thing in the universe has an inscape, an inner essence that is the stamp of the divine creator on it. It is the distinctive design of each and every thing that characterizes its individuality.

Since all creation is by the Word (divine fiat) human identity in God’s image is grounded in God’s speech and no two creation words are ever spoken alike

Now, human persons, as the highest beings in all of creation, have the unique ability to grasp this inscape of things, but especially of other people, through a process that he called instress. Instress, according to Hopkins, is a thrust of energy (and empathy, we believe) that allows us to see the essence and distinctiveness of another thing or person. This logocentric theology of Hopkins is grounded in the Imago Deithe image of God in every person.

If this is true, then Hopkins himself was a master and exemplar of it.

In his poetry, he is known for capturing the distinctiveness of things, especially in nature, using beautiful language. He had a poet’s apprehension of reality, or the “dappled distinctiveness of everything kept in creation,”, according to biographer Paul Mariani. It was part of Hopkin’s dedication to understanding the thisness of reality.

For Hopkins, his understanding of inscape found its highest expression in the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, in which God himself dwells. The “inscape” of the Eucharist, in other words, is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. By logical extension, Hopkins could deeply grasp the indwelling of God in the souls of the faithful. But it was his abiding devotion to the Eucharist that was the source and summit of his spiritual life, and even his philosophy. Because the fullness of divine life could dwell under the appearance of bread and wine, how shot through with the grandeur or God must all of creation be!

Inscape: Our Inner Landscape

We could think of inscape as one’s inner landscape.

In the 1987 Steven Spielperg movie “Inner Space”, a down-on-his-luck naval aviator is involved in a scientific experiment that leaves him miniaturized and inside the body of a hypochrondriac grocery store clerk, exploring his “inner space”.

Now, none of us (barring a novel breakthrough!) will be able to explore the inner space of another person, but we can certain explore their inscape. Although we can never know it fully (only God can), it is part of the deepest desire of every person to know and be known at more than a superficial level.

The act of instress involves grasping the whole person, which includes his interiority and personal distinctiveness. Most importantly, we must explore our own.

Dynamism

Our inscape is not a static thing, but a dynamic thing. It includes the entire history of our lives, and it is constantly changing as we “enact our selves”. In other words, it’s not enough to see our inner landscape and our basic, unique design – we must also live it out!

A fundamental way to explore our inscape is through our story. When we share our story with another who is open to receiving it – one who listens, empathically, to what our story reveals about who we really are – it allows us to grasp certain truths about ourselves as we make our history present in our memory and in language through our speech. The other person we are sharing our story with can help us to grasp those truths. And he very act of delving into our story is itself a revelatory experience.

Inscape and Holiness

For Hopkins, the uniqueness of a person is directly related to his holiness. A person becomes holy to the extent that he becomes himself – the pathway of holiness is radically unique for each person who is united to Christ in a personal union (of course, it includes the Body of Christ, the Church, but it does not do violence to his personhood).

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton, writing about inscape, explains:

On the contrary, the perfection of each created thing is not merely its conformity to an abstract type but in its own individual identity with itself.

Thus the call to holiness is grounded in God’s creation – the unique, individual person – and not in a Platonic ideal.

Finally, holiness is related to “vocation” in two ways:

  1. God creates each person through the word.
  2. When a person responds to God’s speech by expressing his unique word, he becomes Holy.

We look forward to developing our understanding of inscape, along with you, as we continue to explore our own inscapes and helping other members of the Body of Christ explore theirs.

A Story-Driven Approach

We tell stories because we live stories, and not the other way around.

We believe that narrative realism is critical to becoming who you are. It means uncovering the story at the heart of your life, and how it fits into the structure of the Big Story of creation.

We help you do that. Our approach is to start with your story – unique, unrepeatable, and unimaginable to anyone. Your narrative is sacred ground, and we treat it that way. By listening attentively, we help you uncover the important plot points in your story.  We help you gain an understanding of what they say about who you are truly are at your core.

Truth has a history. When the Son of God took flesh, he lived a full earthly life. He entered into history. And so, as the Truth, we can say that the truth has a history.  The truth of who you are must also, then, be inseparable from your history – the story of your life. We explore it with you, shoulder to shoulder, and help you understand what it means for your past, your present, and your future. This is a distinctive part of our approach.

Education: Love & Adventure

Adventure in Learning

For St. Augustine, love alone allows us to see what something is really like, or what someone is ultimately capable of becoming. Education is first and foremost an act of love. Through love, we are able to help people become who they are.

An educator’s job is to help each student develop according to their God-given, individual design. This requires a great sensitivity to the uniqueness of each person. It also calls for the cultivation of interior freedom in each student so that they can pursue knowledge and understanding according to their personal way of being.

In the real world, we read books that we are curious about. And we are free to follow that curiosity to its end! If I read a good book, I may follow a footnote within it that gets my attention. This often leads to the exploration of a new author, and a new sphere of thought. But this way of learning is missing from the typical, static, college course. Where is the adventure?

Love is always an adventure.​

Freedom

There is no adventure without freedom.

​The real joy in playing jazz music is in the freedom of the musician to give expression to what moves him. Now, there are basics that the musician has to master in order to get to this point. For example, he must know the fundamentals of music, and he must respect the baseline and accompanying instrumentals of each song. But beyond that, he is free to move in often unexpected directions. The joy of jazz is in spontaneity!

If we have lost the joy in education, it is because we have lost the freedom to give expression to who we really are. There should be joy in learning. The search for truth, when authentic, is a joyful experience because it is a following of that which we love. For a Christian, it is a following of Jesus Christ. And we must follow him as we are – not as anyone else follows him, and not as anyone else might want us to. This is why attentiveness to the unique person is the foundation of  education: by denying a person the full exercise of his freedom to be who he is uniquely created to be, we are denying him truth.

Toward a Renewal in Catholic Education

There is no “system” for renewing education. What is needed is a radical attentiveness to the personhood of each student. We believe that true renewal in education will come about by creating a “culture of vocation” in our schools so that the entire journey of learning is situated in a context of who the human person is and what he is called to be. As long as education is built on an inadequate anthropology (human persons as information-gatherers, for instance), there is no amount of tweaking that can fix it. We have to raze the bastions, in one sense, in order to get back to the persons themselves.

We can create a culture of vocation within education by forming strong local communities and, above all, by fostering loving and open dialogue between those primordial communities, families, our primary educators. It is within the family that the first stirrings of personal vocation arise, and so it must be within the family that personal vocation can be cultivated by an education that takes it seriously.

 

 

Synod 2018: Family and Peer Support

This article is a summary of one segment of the preparatory document for the 2018 Synod on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment” which focuses on family, peers, and community support in vocational discernment. A full list of synod questions posed to the faithful can be found here. We invite your comments and discussion on them.

The Role of Educators, Mentors, and Families

The synod document clearly states the importance of personal and institutional points of references for young people. In says:

“….young people have a need for persons of reference, who are close-by, credible, consistent and honest, in addition to places and occasions for testing their ability to relate to others (both adults and peers) and dealing with their feelings and emotions. Young people look for persons of reference who are able to express empathy and offer them support…”

So the interaction and support from peers is particularly important. Young persons need an opportunity free interaction with them, to be able to express feelings and emotions among them, and to learn in an informal manner from them and with them.

The synod document recognizes the danger of a general lack of trust of institutions and even the Church among young people. There is a general “Anti-Institutional” attitude prevalent. In place of the Church, many find their home in sects, groups, or other substitutes for belonging to the Body of Christ. But their lives are too often characterized by fluidity and insecurity.

A Reflective Course of Action

The synod document calls for an increasingly “reflective course of action” for young people. It points to the increasing fluidity of choices as a source of concern. For many young people, the horizon consists of options which can always be reversed rather than definitive choices. “Today I choose this, tomorrow we’ll see,” is the attitude. In general, there is a lack of bold commitment.

Pope Francis has spoken often on the importance of taking risks, and making bold choices. At the Discourse at Villa Nazareth, he said:

The synod document declares a crisis of education. It references the educational emergency highlighted by Pope Benedict in 2008 in his Letter to the City and the Diocese of Rome on the Urgency of Educating Young People.

 

Synod 2018: Pastoral Activity for Young People

Pastoral Activity for Youth Discernment

The pastoral and vocational care of young people, though overlapping, have distinct differences.

Walking with Young People

We must encounter young people where they are, going beyond any preconceived framework. We must adapt to their times and pace of life and take them seriously. Pope Francis says that some people walk very unpredictable paths which can take them far away form ecclesial communities.

“Vocational ministry is learning the style of Jesus, who passes through the places of daily life, stops without being hurried and, by looking at our brothers with mercy, leads them to encounter God the Father.”

The message of the synod directly involves the freedom of young people, thus it is important that local communities find creative ways of addressing young people in a personal way that supports personal development. We must be “bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in our respective communities” (Evangelii gaudium, 33).

Three verbs from the Gospel can be helpful to us in this regard: going outseeing, and calling.

We must set aside our preconditioned “mental framework” in encountering people anew. Instead, we must listen to the story of young peoples’ lives. We must therefore be attentive to their joys, hopes, sadness and anxieties, all in an effort to share them.

Seeing means spending time with them, and exchanging glances as the Lord did. Indeed, the true shepherd is able to “peer into the depths of the heart without being intrusive or threatening.”

In the Gospel accounts, Jesus transformed his look of love into a word, that is, a call to newness of life.

Young People as Agents of Action

In pastoral activity, young people are not objects but agents. Thus they are primary actors in this effort. The Church herself is called to learn from young people.

But young people, as agents, still need credible adults in their lives. These adults must have:

  • Credible faith
  • Clear identity
  • Strong sense of belonging to the Church
  • Visible spiritual character
  • Strong passion for education
  • A great capacity for discernment

Unprepared and immature adults can act in a possessive and manipulative manner pose a serious threat to young people. In doing this, they have the potential to create negative dependencies, and more.

The Church needs to get accustomed to the fact that the ways of approaching the faith are less standardized, and therefore she must become more attentive to the individuality of each person.

Synod 2018: Three Steps to Discernment

This article summarizes points made in the Preparatory Document for the 2018 Synod: “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment”. You can see a list of all of the questions posed to the faithful here. We welcome responses.

The Synod: Faith, Discernment, and Vocation

The synod preparatory document says that we must encounteraccompany, and care for every young person, without exception. This is the first step in not leaving them to feel abandoned, or isolated. Thus being born must include the hope of being able to express one’s individuality in a journey toward the fullness of life.

Faith is “seeing things as Jesus does” (cf. Lumen Fidei, 18). It is then the source of vocational discernment because it provides it with its fundamental contents, development, personal style and pedagogy. The vocation to the joy of love is the fundamental call that God has placed in the heart of every person. We know this through faith.

The conscience plays a critical role in vocational discernment. It is “the most secret core and sanctuary of man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths” (Gaudium et spes, 16).

Evangelii Gaudium 51 offers three words to describe discernment: to recognize, to interpret, and to choose.

Three Steps in Vocational Discernment

To Recognize

Recognition concerns all of life’s happenings. We must learn to recognize the people we meet and the words we hear. Most importantly, we must learn to recognize how the events of our life affect our interiority.

We must be able to recognize emotions. A person often feels attracted or pushed in a variety of directions, without enough clarity to take action. “Recognizing” means making this emotional richness emerge and understanding these feelings without making a judgment. It also requires capturing a “flavor” that remains. That is, the consonance or dissonance between what is experienced and what is in the depths of the heart.

Now, in the stage of recognition, meditating on the Word of God is of critical importance. It can help emotions, thoughts, and feelings emerge. The Word of God can be identified in the events of our life that it narrates.

To Interpret

Interpreting is the reflective state of action. It is not enough to say that an action or experience left a “deep impression”. Rather, we must help young people to truly understand the origin and meaning of the desires and emotions stirred up in their hearts. In discernment, “realities are greater than ideas” (Evangelii Gaudium, 231).

Interpreting our desires means an honest confrontation with them, in light of God’s Word, with the moral demands of the Christian life. The effort of interpreting leads the one engaged in it not to settle for the legalistic logic of the bare minimum, but instead to seek a way to make the most of one’s gift and possibilities. And this is an attractive and inspiring message for young people.

To Choose

The final step is making a decision based on authentic freedom and personal responsibility. It is always connected to a concretes situation. A person must be freed from subjection to forces outside of oneself, namely heteronomy. All of this requires a coherency with one’s life. In other words, personal vocation is what lends coherence to our choices. In all of this, we cannot forget the inviolable place of conscience.

Decisions can not remained imprisoned in interiority which keeps them virtual or unrealistic. They must come into contact with reality through concrete actions. We must accept the risk of confrontation with the reality which caused the desires and emotions in the first place.

At this stage, the cycle involves “recognizing” and “interpreting” again as we see whether the decision is good or whether it is advisable to re-evaluate.

This is why “going out” is so important. It helps us overcoming the crippling fear of making a mistake. There is a philosophy of hermeneutic which can free us from this crippling fear. Instead, we should learn to move out, we act, and we evaluate.

Three Basic Beliefs Underlying Discernment

The first belief is that the Spirit of God works in the heart of every man and woman through feelings and desires that are bound to ideas, images, and plans. Listening carefully, we have the possibility to interpret these signals.

The second belief is that the human heart, because of its weakness and sin, is normally divided because it is attracted to different and even contrary feelings.

The third belief is that every way of life imposes a choice because a person cannot remain indefinitely in an undetermined state. And so a person needs to adopt the instruments needed to recognize the Lord’s call to the joy of love and choose to respond to it.

Among all of these, the Church’s spiritual tradition emphasizes the importance of personal accompaniment.

The voice of the Spirit speaks to the uniqueness of each individual. Personal accompaniment demands the constant refinement of one’s sensitivity to the voice of the Spirit and leads to discovering a resource and richness in a person’s individual character.

The document refers to the Gospel in highlighting the importance of certain elements of accompaniment, namely: a loving look (Jn 1:35-51), an authoritative word (Lk 4:32), an ability to become a neighbor (Good Samaritan parable), a choice to walk beside (the disciples of Emmaus), and an authentic witness, fearlessly going against preconceived ideas (the washing of the feet at the Last Supper).

The Church accepts her call to collaborate in the joy of young people. It doesn’t wish to take control of their faith (cf. 2 Cor 1:24).

Mentors: The Relationship between Truth and Knowing

The word “mentor” from the Greek Mentōr, the name of the adviser of the young Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) in Homer’s Odyssey. The mentor has been down the road before that the mentee is now walking upon. The mentor is one who not only has been down the road, but knows the other who he or she is leading.

Now, what do we mean when we talk about knowing the other?

“Hey, do you know Deanna?” “Yeah, she was my sister’s close friend back in high school and was often at our house.” “I’ve known Rod and Tony for about 5 years.” Or, as I’ve sometimes heard since living in Steubenville: a person get’s introduced to another and the other says “Good to know you.”

But what precisely do we know when we really know another person?

Mentor Virgil Leading Dante

Mentors: Perceiving the Essence of Another

We are not going to deeply explore the meaning of “know” in this context. Books beyond counting have been written about epistemology-the study of knowledge– and we could get hung up very easily here.

I simply mean that to know a person means you have developed a relationship with the person (to some degree or another) and that you perceive the truth or nature of that person.

So, if I have a relationship with the storeowner, who is friendly and shares me all about his wife and kids, and then later I find out that he was actually a foreign spy with no family I would say I did not know him at all. It was a false relationship, false information about him.

Knowledge is in degrees of course. And this is certainly the case in our understanding of other people.

But what is it about a person that is most true of them?

1) The person’s relationships, especially those that are most foundational and enduring, are constitutive of the person. We have no being at all without relationships and are richly, deeply situated within a whole web of relationships not just with concrete persons like parents, siblings, friends, but with culture, nation, etc. With his God especially.

2) The person’s essential characteristics. General traits they share with others. These help us to know person but bluntly.   To say a person is extraverted or friendly doesn’t say much. Those characteristics most authentic to the person – these are much truer than general characteristics.

Every Life Is a Vocation

“In the design of God, every man is called upon to develop himself, for every life is a vocation. At birth, everyone is granted, in germ, a set of aptitudes and qualities for him to bring to fruition. Their coming to maturity, which will be the result of education received from the environment and personal efforts will allow each man to direct himself toward the destiny intended for him by his Creator.” From On the Development of Peoples, Paul VI.

Here we have the Holy Father Paul VI noting how essential characteristics of the person designed by God, given by God are clearly constitutive of his unique nature. Key part of his destiny. He also speaks about how these develop in relationship with “the environment” which obviously includes a whole host of social, cultural, historical factors.

But the place in which the person’s relationships and essential characteristics especially come alive are in what we call the person’s story. In their “story” we see the dynamic between their intrinsic energy to be a certain way in a social, cultural, historical, familial context. We see the dynamic of others acting upon the person and the person in their own self-creative freedom responding to such action and initiating other projects. But the story connects all this dynamic exchange in a holistic fashion.

The Importance of Story

In common speech we will often say as move to get to know another: “What is your story?”

Much research – much good research – has been done in contemporary psychology about the importance of story for persons to build a strong sense of identity and, of course, a means to share that identity with others.

Much of this work is highly consistent with Catholic anthropology. But I want to close this section not by appeal to a psychologist but one of my favorite teachers in philosophy, Norris Clarke, S.J. Let’s listen:

If we wish to know in full self-consciousness who we are, we must assimilate and integrate—self consciously and deliberately, I think—at least the key moments and phases of our own past, so that the meaningful pattern hidden within them emerges into our own self-consciousness, so that our lives reveal themselves as a meaningful story, and not just a collection of unconnected slides about our past stored up in more or less accurate memory. Norris Clarke, “Medalist’s Address: The Philosophical Importance of Doing One’s own Autobiography,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, 54 (1980), p. 18.

Paul VI spoke about how we are designed with a set of aptitudes and qualities. Note here that Father Clarke highlights the meaningful pattern of our life revealed by story, a pattern which surely includes the emergence of those latent unique gifts.

Our lives are revealed through story to others. The very process of formulating story is important, Fr. Clarke believes, because it also enables us to be fully self-conscious of who we are.

If we as mentors are eager to truly hear the story of our mentees, there is  great opportunity. Our mentees will grow in self-awareness of who they are at the same time as we grow in knowledge of them!

Empathy: An Etymology and Introduction

Effective listening is always empathic listening. And it’s critical in awakening the unique personal vocation in another.

First, what do we mean by empathy?

Oxford dictionary provides a clean, clear definition: “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” So it’s not a pure intellectual act. You “get” where they are coming from. You see the world from their perspective.

The word “empathy” comes from the Greek word empatheia. The root of that word is pathos or feeling.  The Greek prefix “em” means “in” or “to go into.”   So, in empathy we go into the feelings of the other. More broadly, we go into the experience of the other.

Empathy is not Sympathy

Empathy is not Sympathy

This is not the same thing as sympathy. Two word are often confused. “Sympathy,” as Stephen Covey says “is a form of agreement, a form of judgment.” Sympathy assumes that the other’s position is correct.

The Greek prefix “sym” or its variation “syn” means “with” or “together.” So sympathy means that we feel with the other in the sense of agreement. “I can sympathize with coal miners frustrated with poor working conditions.” I agree with their position.

It can also express common feeling that assumes agreement:  “As we left the funeral the sympathy felt by the parishioners for their beloved priest knit their hearts together.”

Often sympathy is right and proper, but it is not the same as empathy.

Empathy does not entail agreement. This is very critical point. It is very possible and indeed necessary for human relationships that we enter into the feelings of others – stand in their shoes, see the world from their perspective – without simply taking on those feelings.

Empathy Expressed in Listening

Let’s turn now to how empathy is expressed in communication and, in particular, through listening.

“The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone,” Covey writes. “It’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person emotionally as well as intellectually.”

The basic disposition of empathic listening is:

  • Not closed or guarded (create wall with hands) but open (gesture of openness)
  • Does not start out pressing a point, making a case, but waits to see the emerging position from the other.
  • Assumes good will unless proven otherwise.

Synod 2018: The Joy and Challenge of Vocation

The Synod Preparatory Document

The Vatican has released the preparatory document for the Synod on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment”. In this post, we cover some of its highlights as it relates to personal vocation.

You can read all of the questions that the Synod committee posed to the faithful here. We welcome your answers and comments.

The Primacy of Joy

The thread that runs through the pope’s Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (the joy of the Gospel), the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (helping families find that joy), and now the synod on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment (Synod 2018) is joy. Indeed, the preparatory document itself states that. In fact, it opens with a line from John’s gospel that we could consider the guiding scripture passage for the entire document:

“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (Jn 15:11)

Apostle John on breast of Jesus

The apostle St. John on the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper

Challenges: Degrees of Freedom

Young people face different circumstances depending on which part of the world they live in. Still globalization has led to young people being more alike today than at many other periods. For example, they show a readiness to to commit themselves to concrete activities in which the personal contribution of each might be an occasion for recognizing one’s personal identity.

There has been a diffusion of the phenomenon of NEET, which means “not in education, employment, or training”. And this means many young people not engaged in an activity of study or work or vocational training at all. Sadly, women are disproportionately affected by this.

The synod preparatory document differentiates between passive and active young:

“The discrepancy between young people who are passive and discouraged and those enterprising and energetic comes from the concrete opportunities offered to each one in society and the family in which one develops, in addition to the experiences of a sense of meaning, relationships and values which are formed even before the onset of youth.”

Let’s help our youth be receptive listeners to Holy Spirit, and active in charity!

Pope John Paul II and Radical Personalism

Christopher Stefanick tells a story about a great saint of our time. Pope John Paul II boldly taught that each unique person is the way of the Church. And helping each person embrace his own vocation must be for her a fundamental priority.

The following story is about a series of encounters between Bishop Robert Brom and John Paul II.

Pope John Paul II

“Brom’s first meeting with the Pope occurred in 1963 during the second session of the Second Vatican Council. Brom was a seminarian at the North American College. Pope John Paul was the auxiliary bishop of Krakow. Brom and several classmates were leaving the Church of the Gesu after a visit there when some Polish seminarians with Bishop Wojtyla were entering. At that time Brom and his classmates briefly met the man who would thereafter become the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow and the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years. Subsequently, Brom forgot all about the exchange.

In 1983 after his appointment as Bishop of Duluth, Bishop Brom in the context of his first Ad Limina Visit met Pope John Paul for what he thought was the first time. However, John Paul, looking into Brom’s face said, “I think we have met before.” Brom assured the Holy Father that they’d never met. “I believe we have,” insisted the Pope, but Brom was equally sure they had not. After all, a meeting with the Pope isn’t easily forgotten!

Some days later, during the same Ad Limina Visit, the secretary to the Holy Father, then, Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz, now Cardinal, approached Bishop Brom to say, “Don’t argue with the Pope, he remembers when he met you.” “When?” Brom asked. “In November of 1963 outside the Church of the Gesu in Rome.” Brom’s memory refreshed, he asked Monsignor Dziwisz, “How can he do that?” to which Dziwisz explained that for John Paul to meet another person is to encounter God.”[1]

There are two key points we can draw from this story.

Lessons from Pope John Paul II

First, the Holy Father’s radical sensitivity to the unique human person. The only way John Paul II could have remembered Bishop Brom and the thousands of others he encountered is through close and loving attentiveness to each person.

Second, John Paul II did not encounter God in an abstract way when he first looked upon the face of Bishop Brom. He recognized (as so many of his other writings also testify) that Bishop Brom and every person manifest in a unique way the face of God on this earth.

According to Pope John Paul II, each person is “the primary and fundamental way of the church” (Redemptor Hominis, 14). He later said in that same document that “every initiative serves true renewal in the Church…”. This happens “insofar as the initiative is based on adequate awareness of the individual Christian’s vocation.” (Redemptor Hominis, 21)

Every initiative!

 

Jérôme Lejeune: A Geneticist In Defense of Life

Servant of God, Pediatrician, Geneticist

Jérôme Lejeune was a French pediatrician and one of the leading geneticists in the world. In 1959, he discovered that the presence of an extra twenty-first chromosome in certain people, which causes Down Syndrome. He then went on to identify other chromosomal disorders and did pioneering research on chromosomal anomalies in cancer.

Jérôme was a strong advocate for the protection of all life from conception to natural death. He spoke out strongly against pre-natal diagnoses that look for chromosomal abnormalities, which often lead to abortion. He was passionately concerned about the welfare of mentally handicapped children. Jérôme died in Paris, France, on Easter Sunday 1994.

Jérôme Lejeune: Led by Wonder

In a message about his friend, Jérôme, St. John Paul II said:

“Professor Jérôme Lejeune was always able to employ his profound knowledge of life and of its secrets for the true good of man and of humanity, and only for that purpose.”

Jérôme sought to comprehend the mystery of life, but also to express it. He communicated a scientific basis for the beginning of life at conception, and sought to understand the causes of Down Syndrome. Jérôme defended the dignity and rights of people living with Down Syndrome, and often testified at court trials when nascent human life was at stake. He would often ask:

“Is life a fact of a desire?”

Jérôme always had a strong sense of wonder. He told his children: “admiring a sunset, contemplating beauty, being aware of the Infinite, and hence being able to reason about the human condition – only man has that grace”.

Wonder and curiosity constantly reinforced each other and led to knowledge. “Understanding the human body, its subtle mechanisms, the origin of life – for him it was an object of study, but also of unending wonder,” his daughter said. “What a marvelously ingenious and complex machine is this body that makes us live!”

Jérôme Lejeune’s Core Motivational Drive

Led by his wonder, Jérôme undertook a career in genetics where he sought a cause for the abnormality of Down Syndrome. At the time, it was often called “mongrolism”. Yet we know it today as Trisomy 21, thanks to Jérôme’s work.

Jérôme wanted to understand the causes for Down Syndrome so that he could communicate the truth. At the time of his work, there were many false ideas about the disease. For instance, many people believed that the mother gave it to her child. Others believed that it was contagious. It was common to see people cross to the other side of the street when they saw a child with Down Syndrome.

Jérôme’s ability to express his finding of an extra chromosome in the 21st pair led to a widespread shift in treatment and perception. He dedicated much of his life to providing compassionate, humane care for all of those born with chromosomal abnormalities. One of his favorite lines was:

“A man is a man is a man.”

Stories of Achievement

Two stories from Jérôme’s life illustrate his core motivational drive to comprehend and express. He was never content simply with exploration and knowledge alone; it was in finding pithy, memorable, and often eloquent ways of expressing the findings of his work that he was able to make such an impression on the world.

The Story of Tom Thumb

Jérôme Lejeune wrote a text in 1973 that summed up forcefully all of the conviction, scientific certitude, and rhetorical talent that made him such an extraordinary defender of life. He explained the evolution of life from the first moment of conception. From the time that an egg is fertilized, it contains all of the genetic material that makes one a member of the human species.

In the text, Jérôme told the story of Tom Thumb, “this little man that we all once were in our mother’s womb”. He illustrated the continuity of life, distilling complex genetic and philosophical concepts to words that are easily grasped by his listeners.

The Testimony about Frozen Embyros

Jérôme testified at a divorce trial in Maryville, TN, in which frozen embryos were at stake. The trial was front page news, which gave Jérôme an opportunity to express his research to millions around the country. He describes the satisfaction of the experience:

“It was a question of explaining, as a genetitist, that it is well known that sufficient information – all that is necessary – was there at the moment of conception, and that there was no doubt that these were very young human beings. Extremely young. Incredibly young. But they were living beings, and their biological inheritance allowed us to declare that they were human. And a being that is human is a human being.”

He continued to explain:

“In order to make the judge understand what was at stake, I used a very simple word. I told him, ‘These very young human being are frozen, packed together by the thousands into an extremely restricted space, where time itself is stopped.”

Jérôme had a deep desire to express his convictions, and his desire to speak out caused him much suffering. He had an insatiable, irresistible, enduring drive throughout his life to speak the truth. In a speech before bellow physicians, he called a United Nations body as an “Institute of health that has become an institute of death.” His defense of life was such an unpopular position in the medical community that he wrote to his wife later that day: “This afternoon I lost my Nobel Prize.”

Summary of a Heroic Life

There is evidence in Jérôme’s life of a pattern of seeking knowledge and understanding for the good of humanity. His daughter recounts an experience near the end of his life:

“Some time before his death, at the hospital, he wanted to see a program devoted to the mission in orbit to repair the Hubble satellite. The human ingenuity thrilled him. It was a mission with only one goal: knowledge. Knowledge was the true human genius for Jérôme.” – Clara Lejeune-Gaymard[1]

Jérôme Lejeune’s mission was to comprehend the mystery of the human body and human life. He found deep satisfaction in communicating that mystery to others. Throughout his life, Jérôme followed his thirst to comprehend. Yet he also found great joy in communicating truth. Because he found such joy in expression, Jérôme’s work will live on. And so will thousands of lives in the womb and beyond.

[1] From the book “Life is a Blessing: A biography of Jérôme Lejeune”