By: Krysti Patient, Full Member of Women Youth Apostles
It’s almost been a week since 1,000 teens and adults took over the Marymount University campus for the Arlington Diocese RALLY 2015. It never ceases to amaze me that despite chillier weather without hope of rising above 54 degrees, that light and warmth radiates wherever there are young people enjoying each other in the community of the young church. Myself and several other volunteers for the Arlington Diocese Office of Youth Ministry spent much of Saturday night and all of Sunday from dawn until almost midnight (always major points for finishing in the PM) building the stage, posting signage for workshops and bathrooms, running games, directing teens and adults, selling band merchandise, and more. It was a long weekend that still managed to conclude in the blink of an eye.
I’m gathering my thoughts and jotting down notes this Thursday evening afterwards. In my personal prayer, God always speaks to me in coincidence- via daily readings or the liturgy for Morning Prayer that day, or in the simple circumstances of my life. I can’t help but smile here because this is the first moment I’ve been able to take to reflect on the events of RALLY, and I am doing so on the feast day of Pope St. John Paul II, at St. Veronica’s Catholic Church in Chantilly, praying in front of the Major Relics of St. Maria Goretti.
What is God saying to me in these coincidences? First, we all know that one of Pope John Paul II’s greatest loves was the young people. He empowered youth throughout the world to make holiness a part of their lives. This passion of one of our newest saints is the same flame coursing through events like RALLY each year in our diocese. And the young people loved Pope John Paul II back. I can’t help but feel the love our teens have for our very own Bishop Loverde. Bishop is celebrating 50 years of priesthood and could very well be retiring soon. At the end of Mass at RALLY, youth presented Bishop Loverde with a gift and giant card which many teens had signed for his golden jubilee. The cheering that erupts for our shepherd from these teens is always so very heart warming. And what was his response to this outpouring of love on Sunday? “I love you.” Both Bishop and JPII desired sainthood for the young people of their flock and made it known to them that it was not only possible, but what they were made for!
St. John Paul II said to the youth at World Youth Day 2002 in Canada, “Just as salt gives flavor to food and light illumines the darkness, so too holiness gives full meaning to life and makes it reflect God’s glory. How many saints, especially young saints, can we count in the Church’s history! In their love for God their heroic virtues shone before the world, and so they became models of life which the Church has held up for imitation by all… Through the intercession of this great host of witnesses, may God make you too, dear young people, the saints of the third millennium!”
One of the youngest modern saints and patroness of youth in The Church is 12 year old St. Maria Goretti. If you don’t know her story, she was a young Italian girl born in October of 1890. She lost her father at a young age and had to mature quickly to help take care of her siblings while her mother earned a living. The family received help from another family, the Serenelli’s. Alessandro Serenelli was 22 and began making sexual advances toward Maria. One day, while her family was away, he threatened to kill her with a 10-inch knife if she did not give him her virginity. She refused, and he stabbed her 14 times. Before she died, she did the unthinkable- she forgave Alessandro, “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli.. and I want him with me in heaven forever.” It is no surprise that St. Maria is known as “The Little Saint of Great Mercy”!
In fact, the USA Tour of the Major Relics of St. Maria Goretti is in honor the Year of Mercy. The diocesan theme for the year’s ministry is “Show Know Mercy”. Once we know mercy, we must show it to others. That is a two-fold command, the call to holiness–to understand and to accept God’s mercy in our lives, to know his love, and then to show it to others. What better example than that of little Maria? Years after Alessandro was settled in a prison cell, Maria appeared to him. She didn’t say a single word, but handed him 14 lilies one by one, one for each of the wounds he inflicted on her. She had forgiven him, and now he knew that. Her mercy opened the door to salvation for Alessandro, but he still had to accept that mercy and walk through the door himself. The next day he requested the Sacrament of Reconcilation, repented, and even evangelized his fellow inmates. Eventually he was released from prison, sought out Maria’s mother and received her forgiveness as well. Eventually, he even became a Franciscan lay brother. He died in his old age, and got to see little Maria be canonized a saint. There are many who are calling for his canonization now, too. Such is the transformative power of mercy!
I think both Maria and Alessandro are happy coincidences God planted in my contemplation. Maria is the young saint I absolutely believe some of the teens who gather at RALLY and other events are hoping to imitate. Alessandro represents the hope we all have for redemption, and an example of true humility. RALLY Keynote Paul J. Kim kicked off the day’s events with a beautiful message, “I don’t care what you’ve done! We’ve all done sinful things. This is my challenge: Come home. Where is home? To The Church, to the mercy of the Father; the mercy of your God.” No one would have blamed St. Maria Goretti if she condemned Alessandro for the ugly things he did to her, but because she chose mercy, thousands of Catholics today know her story and are inspired by her witness. Because Alessandro chose to know that mercy, chose to come home, love conquered evil. Satan lost a soul.
A video played on a loop at St. Veronica’s behind St. Maria’s relics that recounted her story. At one small seemingly insignificant part of the video, some elderly religious sisters are kneeling at the site of Maria’s martyrdom. I can only marvel at these aged women, who have quite literally given their lives over to Christ in their vocations, praying intensely for the intercession of a 12 year old girl. The witness of young people is a beautiful, powerful thing. Multiply that to around 800 teenagers just beginning to know God’s presence and mercy in their lives and generating an energy that is the Holy Spirit at work in young hearts. On Sunday, I zipped around from place to place all day helping the youth office update their social media with pictures and quotes from the day. My job was to be practically invisible, and had the blessing of truly enjoying and witnessing that energy. As I watched the teens buzzing with excitement from the keynote, or coming out of a workshop, I couldn’t help but recall just 3 years ago when I too was buzzing in the midst of the zeal of my own conversion. As I watched young people jump into the ring for another round of Gaga Ball, or wait patiently in line for confession, I couldn’t help but remember just under 2 years ago coming into the church at this very chapel at Marymount, still a relatively young person myself.
This is why God loves children. Young people have an incredible energy that channels the Holy Spirit and breathes life into The Church. I know it breathes life into my own faith. I really think there are young people who want to be saints, and that is everything. The Young Church is a great gift to me personally, helping me to remember what it was like to come to know Jesus while inspiring me by their witness. I never had a faith or a community in high school the way these teens do, and it is so very good the way they are embracing it and answering the call to holiness with hope and openness. I think many teens answered Paul J. Kim’s challenge Sunday with enthusiasm, to come home.
“Jesus’ attitude is striking: we do not hear the words of scorn, we do not hear words of condemnation, but only words of love, of mercy, which are an invitation to conversation. “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” Ah! Brothers and Sisters, God’s face is the face of a merciful father who is always patient. Have you thought about God’s patience, the patience He has with each one of us? That is His mercy. He always has patience, patience with us, He understands us, He waits for us, He does not tire of forgiving us if we are able to return to Him with a contrite heart. “Great is God’s mercy,” says the Psalm. “
— Pope Francis, Angelus on March 17, 2013