Lessons we can learn from Mary for the Synod on Young Adults

There are four lessons which young people can learn from Mary that can be described as pastoral priorities for forming mature disciples.

Oct 19, 2018

By Leonard DeLorenzo
There are four lessons which young people can learn from Mary that can be described as pastoral priorities for forming mature disciples. They are:

a. Silence
b. Memory
c. Mercy
d. Sacrifice

On the way to Mary, the angel Gabriel first visits the priest Zechariah. The encounter is remarkably similar to Mary’s, except that Zechariah seems to end up punished, while Mary is exalted. It appears unfair at first blush. But the subtle differences between the narratives are decisive, especially against the backdrop of their similarities.

The story of the Annunciation to Mary is divided into three parts, with the angel speaking three separate times and Mary responding three times. While we hear Mary’s question in her second response and her yes in the third, we may miss her first response, which is her silence. That silence is the first difference between Mary and Zechariah.

Both of them are “troubled” when the angel appears to them. But while “fear fell upon” Zechariah, Mary “considers in her mind” the angel’s greeting. Fearful, Zechariah becomes defensive; Mary opens herself to this strange visitation. It is an issue of composure. One is uncomfortable in silence, while the other is poised and reflective.

This difference is reinforced in the second response from each. Zechariah asks, “How shall I know this?” while Mary asks, “How can this be?” Zechariah is the centre of attention in his own question, as he wants proof to appease his curious and doubtful mind. He is struck mute by the angel, not as punishment but as mercy. He who cannot speak well must learn to listen. Mary, by contrast, places the emphasis on what is happening: She gives the benefit of the doubt to the messenger and is trying to catch up to what has been proclaimed to her.

In the working document for the synod, the first dimension of the discernment of God’s call is “recognising.”

As my student confessed, he has not been “taught how to listen to the voice of God.” What are our young people taught to do? Oftentimes, they are taught to scan, browse, quickly consume and scurry along. That is not listening; that is frenetic movement.

This is one of the ways in which the digital world, for example, is not primarily about content but formation.

Consider a social media feed, like Twitter. If you scroll down, the feed goes on and on. And while you are “down below,” more is coming over the top, endlessly. This flow prescribes a certain kind of formation. The way to survive or even thrive in an environment like this is to gobble up information and move along as more keeps coming. To stay in one place is to be plagued by the anxiety of not being elsewhere or everywhere.

The first pastoral priority for forming mature disciples, therefore, aims at Mary’s silence. How do we encourage listening? The task is to create conditions and environments where young people can develop the capacity for attentiveness. The landscape of the digital world is a lot like the multitasking demands of overstuffed schedules. The students in my seminar mastered that game, where achievement fuels ambition. In the process, they never learned how to listen.

Mary is listening, but what does she hear? What she hears is related to how she hears, and how she hears is connected to whom she hears.

The last thing the angel tells Mary is that her cousin Elizabeth is pregnant. It might seem like a little newsflash from the village over the hill, but to one whose memory is configured to Scripture, the living memory of Israel, Elizabeth’s pregnancy is a potent sign.

In the opening verses of his Gospel, Luke the Evangelist introduces Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, divulging some rather personal information: “They had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.” It is not usually a wise practice to comment on someone’s advanced age in public, and I cannot imagine calling attention to the fact that “this woman, right here: She’s barren.” Luke does—and for good reason. Both Elizabeth’s age and her infertility make her resemble Abraham’s wife, Sarah.

If we thought that Luke failed in upholding proper decorum, the author of Genesis commits an even more egregious lapse. In Genesis 18, we are told that “Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women.” That is pretty vivid. Those who know Genesis, though, know that this is highly significant. Why? Because the Lord’s covenantal promise to Abraham is that his descendants will be exceedingly numerous.

As Abraham laments their failure to conceive and cries aloud to God, the Lord doubles down on his promise. By the end, it seems that all hope is lost — except for the one hope that matters: hope in the Lord God, the giver of life. The amplification of God’s promise and the desolation of Abraham and Sarah’s infertility culminates in one critical question: “Is anything too marvelous for the Lord to do?” The answer: No, nothing is too marvelous. God gives life.

So when Mary learns that Elizabeth — who is old and barren — has conceived a child, she hears “Sarah.”

How does she hear that? Through a memory alive with Scripture. Whose voice does she hear? She hears God’s voice — the one who was working then has announced that he is working now in her midst, and her own call is from him. “For with God nothing will be impossible.” What she hears is the God of Israel asking for her trust. And she says yes.

Zechariah, in contrast, is overcome with fear and misses the meaning of his own wife’s pregnancy. He did not hear a continuous narrative of God at work. He was not free to listen.

What prevents young people from listening to the voice of God? Economic inequalities that generate violence, crime and drug trafficking, inducing fear and insecurity. Political systems dominated by corruption that corrode young people’s trust in institutions and authority. War and threats to life that spur migration and refugee crises. All manner of social exclusions and performance anxieties — of not measuring up, not achieving enough — that fuel a cycle of addictions and isolation and prop up the false comforts of narcotics, video games and pornography. And these are just the issues mentioned in Paragraph 7 of the working document.

The second pastoral priority aims at Mary’s memory. The task is to educate young people in the word of God, which means not just “knowing Scripture,” but developing biblical imaginations. Such a thing is the fruit of long-term formation, not periodic lessons. If we think of how much the narratives of violence, rivalry, commodification and the like surround and shape young people’s imaginations, we might glimpse how thoroughly the Church has to wrap young people in the narrative of God’s salvific work. His ways are not our ways; we have to study his ways so we may hear aright.

Mary is poised in silence and receives the Word of God through a scriptural memory. In receiving the word, she also remains a disciplined student of the way God moves.

The angel Gabriel describes Mary’s child in terms of power. He is a king, the son of the Most High, who will have an unending kingdom. And yet, when Mary herself speaks in the Magnificat, she proclaims the power of her son not as the world conceives of power but rather as the undoing of false, earthly power. In receiving the Word of God, she acts according to the true measure of divine power: mercy.

The power of divine mercy reveals itself as the willingness to suffer the consequences of a power-hungry world rather than play its game. Her Magnificat proclaims the power of the God of Israel as the one who hears the cry of the poor and hastens to respond, in person. Abiding within the movement of mercy is how one interprets and begins to respond to the Word of God.

The synod’s working document describes the second dimension of discernment as “interpreting.” There is no such thing as a position without presupposition — every way of interpreting requires a guiding narrative. The key question is which narrative or narratives are operative. The movement of mercy — of God’s way — is the interpretive key for deciding how to be creative and bold in response to the word of God.

Today, the strongest alternative to this divine narrative is, quite honestly, “whatever happens to be going on in life.” For young people who enjoy the privileges of opportunity and quality education, we tend to encourage or even demand that they stuff their schedules full of résumé-building activities. For young people burdened by economic or social poverties, we do too little to lift the weight of daily needs or counteract the messages of powerlessness or fatalism. To discover the “joy of love,” young people need to be free to really see each other and be empowered — and taught and urged — to respond to other human beings with compassion, in person.

The third pastoral priority aims at Mary’s mercy. The way to teach the ways of mercy is to practice the works of mercy, not sporadically but regularly. In parishes, mission trips serve a role but the more powerful formation is in weekly commitments. In schools, the highly manicured college preparatory culture, on the one hand, and under-resourced educational environments, on the other, prevent young people from being truly present and engaged not only with material but with each other. In homes, the ways of parents are the most formative factor for the ways of young people. Practicing mercy habitually, both in the home and outside of it, is the key to forming young people to see the world within the possibilities of mercy.--America Magazine

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