Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling that found a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, I had a long talk with a young relative that left me unsettled in an already difficult week.
This twentysomething cradle Catholic did not endorse "marriage equality." But he said it was past time for the U.S. bishops to cut their close ties with Republicans and get back to serving the poor.
Perplexed, I asked him to elaborate. He explained that many of his peers viewed Catholic leaders as GOP groupies. "They need to get back to basics," he said. And to regain their credibility, they should follow Pope Francis' lead by helping the poor and speaking out against exploitative economic practices.
I explained that the Church had developed its teachings on marriage and the sanctity of life well before the GOP came into existence. Further, social justice advocacy and care for the poor remained central concerns for most American Catholic leaders. If he looked at the policy statements on the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he could confirm that the bishops were not carrying water for the GOP and often criticized its policies.
By the time we parted ways, he understood that selective media coverage and partisan talking points have produced a confused view of the U.S. bishops' legacy. Still, the conversation made me think about the message we are sending Catholic Millennials, and the way we are sending it. This demographic is leaving the Church in droves, according to the latest research on the state of religoius belief in the United States.
At the same time, many young Catholics have celebrated Pope Francis's message of care for the poor, and college chaplains and others say they have seen an uptick in service to the needy, though it is not yet clear whether that will bring young people back to the Church.
When I was a twentysomething Catholic entering the world, it was the fragile, blue and white figure of Mother Teresa who inspired my journey to full communion with the Church, with all the challenges that entailed.
She was the voice crying out in the wilderness, and she traveled to Congress and to Harvard University to speak out against a callous disregard for the needy and legal abortion even as she engaged the deep spiritual loneliness she witnessed in the West.
In 1982, when she delivered the Harvard Class Day Address, some protested her appearance, but many stayed and listened to her story about her vocation to love Christ in the "distressing disguise of the poorest of the. poor." This was not a talk organized around "hot-button issues," it was a holistic vision of life that was deeply and joyfully countercultural.
Many of us were inspired by this woman, and none of us knew she carried a heavy,but hidden cross, as the Vatican website explains:
She called her inner experience, 'the darkness.' The 'painful night' of her soul, which began around the time she started her work for the poor and continued to the end of her life, led Mother Teresa to an ever more profound union with God. Through the darkness she mystically participated in the thirst of Jesus, in His painful and burning longing for love, and she shared in the interior desolation of the poor.
Throughout her life, she dismissed the probing attention of the media as she would surely have dismissed our present preoccupation with self-promotion on Facebook and elsewhere.
"I am a pencil in the hand of God," she often said. That message was echoed by her successor, Sister Nirmala Joshi, who died on June 23. Sister Nirmala was a tiny, utterly joyful Catholic animated by a love for Jesus in the guise of the poor. Her witness and leadership showed that Mother Teresa was not a cult figure, but a holy woman who built a religious order that will last well beyond her lifetime.
Mother Teresa's speech at Harvard revealed her gift for sharing God's love wherever she was. Below is a portion of the address that will surely inspire our own efforts to lovingly share our lives and our faith with Millennials in our families.
Yes, there is hunger. Maybe not the hunger for a piece of bread, but there is a terrible hunger for love. There is a terrible hunger for the word of God.
I never forget when we went to Mexico, and we went visiting very poor families. And those people we saw had scarcely anything in their homes, and yet nobody asked for anything. They all asked us: Teach us the word of God. Give us the word of God. “They were hungry for the word of God. Here, too, in the whole world there is a terrible hunger for God, among the young especially. And it is there that we must find Jesus and satisfy that hunger.
Nakedness is not only for a piece of cloth. Nakedness is for the loss of that human dignity, the loss of that respect, the loss of that purity that was so beautiful, so great, the loss of that virginity that was the most beautiful thing that a young man and a young woman can give each other because they love each other, the loss of that presence, of what is beautiful, of what is great this is nakedness. Homelessness is not a lack of a home made of bricks, but the feeling of being rejected, being unwanted, having no one to call your own.
Few of us can match Mother Teresa's legacy, but everyone of us can be a pencil in God's hand when we care for aging relatives, touch the hearts of the lonely, and show real interest in the dreams and struggles of the young.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us!