In Part I of this piece, we spoke about the emotional world of teens as they post their struggles in poetry and prose on writing and social media sites. We looked at some words of wisdom from the Church spoken through the Holy Father, calling us to create a sense of unity with those who suffer, approaching others with tenderness and a listening ear through media, and responding with the same sacrificial love of Christ. His is a love that dares to walk into the trouble worlds of the lost and hurting and hear their deepest inner cries for love. Let us look now at some specifics of relating to teens online and how we can bring the love of Christ and His Church into their lives.
Particularly Painful Issues…
Ministry to young women is often a difficult road to walk. To anyone familiar with the tragic realities of suicidal depression, cutting, and eating disorders, there is an intensely personal dynamic behind these self-harming behaviors. These young women see their bodies as detestable canvases upon which to write the sorrowful story of their lives; and they often reflect such misery in their writing. Each cut becomes a horrid brush stroke on a dark painting that is concealed from misunderstanding eyes. But at the same time, through their poetry, the hidden cuts are displayed in the relative safety of virtual reality. Their struggles with eating disorders are presented as a slow, sorrowful walk on a path towards a life wasting away with no one to notice or care. As these teen girls write, they seem to cling to their desperate words, hoping their hypnotic power might hold their lives in place for one more day. But at the same time, they also see themselves inching deliberately toward the edge of an unavoidable abyss.
For young men, the issues seem to focus on loneliness and what it means to be a man in the absence of a father in their lives. Many have faced verbal and physical abuse and have no idea what it feels like to experience the love and security of a protector, the wisdom of a strong teacher, or the tenderness of a gentle mentor. Searching for role models, men who will show them what it means to be a man, these teen boys are desperate for the kind of connection that only a man can bring. As they enter puberty, this can become sexualized, which can complicate their identity issues even more. Once lines have been crossed, this new identity can become cemented in their minds and cause them to shut down to the Gospel.
A Message of Hope and Healing…
As Catholic clergy and youth ministers, our message to these teens should be simple: “You are worthy. You are unique. You are loveable and loved by One who died for you. You are fearfully and wonderfully made by a Father who knows you more intimately than you know yourself.” As we engage in the daily give-and-take of postings and comments about nothing and everything, we can speak with the gentleness of Christ and slowly touch the hearts of these online teens. If we are gifted in our writing, we can post our own messages of hope that speak to the hurt while offering the love of the Savior as well. In order for these young people to find this hope, we need to move them beyond the small circle of trust they have built around their lives and walk with them up the Hill of the Skull to the cross. Through our words, we can gently introduce these new writing friends to the One who can take their pain and sorrow to Calvary’s tree and free them from their bonds.
In concluding these remarks, let us look at a poem that grew out of these interactions with those who have suffered so much and express their pain within these virtual dark worlds. The poem is called, “Child of Sorrow.” It speaks of the One who was “cut” for them, upon whose flesh had been written all the sins of the world. Jesus is the God-Man who willingly took each bloody stripe of the whip, whose head was crowned with the piercing thorns, and whose very lifeblood was completely drained in payment for every sin. If anyone can relate to the pain and struggle these young people experience, it is the Man of Sorrows. In the poem, a young girl takes the depths of her despair to the cross:
Child of sorrow, fair of form,
Traveling through the fiercest storm,
Sees within the mirror, image dulled with deepest rage.
Sun will rise, another day,
Wears her mask, her part to play,
Walks the path of death, entrapped within a cruel cage.
No one hears her silent cry,
Now resolved to daily die,
Writes upon her battered flesh the bitter words of hate,
Used, abused, misunderstood,
Underneath a Gothic hood,
Sinks within her demon dream and feels her phantom fate.
Can there be no one who sees,
Or no ears to hear her pleas?
Must she now forever live in silent solitude?
Feels her racing heart retreat,
Waiting for its final beat,
Draws the blade her life of empty aching to conclude.
Wand'ring streets in stinging rain,
Searching now to end the pain,
Falls upon a heavy oaken door and enters in.
Moving past the blessed bath,
Sacred pews and angel's wrath,
Now before the altar table draped in sick'ning sin.
Raises firsts to heaven's throne,
Bringing out her heart of stone,
Rages now before the God who mocks her from above.
Gazes now at tortured King,
On his brow a thorny ring,
Body beaten, sacred stripes to testify of love.
Sees the writing on His skin,
All of our forgiven sin,
Blood poured out in full to set now free our dying race.
Can there be a love so pure,
Or a payment so secure,
That His life should so completely take the sinner's place.
Drops the blade upon the floor,
Her young flesh to cut no more,
For the Savior King's cruel death now fills her weary soul.
Rises now a newborn child,
No longer to be reviled,
Weight of sin now lifted, body, mind and spirit whole.
Looks again upon the cross,
Contemplates Messiah's loss,
All so she could gain a place at heaven's open door.
Tears of joy now freely flow,
To her knees and bending low,
Grateful broken heart now free, her blood to flow no more.
Seeking out the sacred page,
For her mind now to engage,
Deep inside the words of hope, a purpose now to find.
Leaves the sanctuary filled,
Voices silenced, pain now stilled,
Now refreshed, renewed, reborn in body, soul and mind.
Child of sorrow, fair of form,
Having now survived the storm,
Sees within the shining glass the face of love restored.
Sun has risen, new day calls
Moves outside her broken walls,
To a world of hurting souls who need her gentle Lord.
The response of these young people to the love of Christ that is shared will come. These teens need to know that someone is listening who understands, will not judge, and will not run away. It is a matter of walking along the road, sitting by the wells of loneliness, and reaching out to the ones who have been beaten down by the world. Eventually, these teens will begin to rewrite their stories in a hopeful way, even speaking hope into the lives of those who have shared in similar struggles. As they see that someone is willing to travel through the valley of the shadow of death with them, they will begin to see that there are indeed pastures of rest and mountaintops of joy before them. Instead of trying to be a counselor, an advisor, a fixer, or a sympathizer, our purpose should be to become a channel for the grace of God to speak into the lives of the young people. We may enter as strangers, but our grace-inspired words, our solid understanding of our Catholic faith, and our gestures of love will be able to speak life into the callous and cutting words of the young people and allow the grace of God to work in heaven’s timing rather than our own.
Pope Benedict, in his Message of the Holy Father, for the 43rd World Communications Day: New Technologies, New Relationships. Promoting a Culture of Respect, Dialogue and Friendship. (Sunday, May 24, 2009), spoke particularly to young people in this regard, expressing the reality of the closer connection that teens have to their peers and their greater familiarity with social media. As Catholic clergy seek to inform young people of the importance of sharing their faith online, these words can serve to guide them as they lead. As Pope Benedict writes:
It falls, in particular, to young people, who have an almost spontaneous affinity for the new means of communication, to take on the responsibility for the evangelization of this “digital continent”. Be sure to announce the Gospel to your contemporaries with enthusiasm. You know their fears and their hopes, their aspirations and their disappointments: the greatest gift you can give to them is to share with them the “Good News” of a God who became man, who suffered, died and rose again to save all people.4
The power that Catholic teens have to spread the transforming love of Christ cannot be understated, but it is up to Catholic clergy and youth ministers to ground that power within the foundational principles outlined here. Teens are wounded healers, empathetic peers who can connect in ways adults often cannot. Indeed they may be better able to break through the barriers of fear and sadness because they are closer in age to their online peers and have gone through the same struggles but have found solace in the arms of their Savior. If they are properly guided to use their experiences in light of sound Catholic teaching, they will leave a lasting legacy on the lives of their online peers.
The Body Reaches Out…
As Catholic clergy and youth ministers lead the People of God to engage the world, it is crucial that we help our congregations connect to the Body of Christ and understand the awesome love the Church can bring to the lost. Catholics have the unique privilege of belonging to one another in Christ and the awesome responsibility to reach out with the love of Jesus to those who have been broken by the world. We have at our disposal the power that comes from living within a community of faithful believers who lift each other up day by day. We are part of a sacramental system that brings us tender forgiveness and eucharistic nourishment, baptismal promises and spiritual healing, shepherding counsel and holy bonds. When we reach out online, one part of the Body extending itself into the virtual world of young people, we bring the strength of the entire Body to bear upon our efforts. While these hurting young people may be too far from us to join our individual congregations, they can still connect locally to the Body to which all Catholics belong. That sense of being accepted by those who will walk the road to salvation with them, is really what this virtual dialogue is all about.
As we take the words of Pope Francis and Pope Benedict to heart, let us continue to consider the ways we can use the Internet to engage the wounded culture around us. If more and more Catholics with a gift for words share their writings and their lives online, we will begin to see a transformation of love that will lead many more into the Kingdom of Heaven. In this age where it is so easy to connect online, may there be more Catholic clergy and youth ministers who are willing to bring the light of Christ’s love into the dark virtual worlds of these young people who are longing for the message of hope and healing.
4 Pope Benedict. “Message of the Holy Father, for the 43rd World Communications Day: New Technologies, New Relationships. Promoting a Culture of Respect, Dialogue and Friendship.” ww2.vatican.va. Sunday, May 24, 2009. Paragraph 9. https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/messages/communications/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20090124_43rd-world-communications-day.html