(Editor’s note: Archbishop Charles Chaput is giving a series of talks at World Youth Day, July 24-26. At the request of the Holy See, speakers have been asked not to read formal, prepared texts to the young people. The following are talking points of the archbishop’s informal talk.)
World Youth Day Catechesis/1
July 24, 2013, Rio de Janeiro
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
We all know what it feels like to be thirsty. It’s a kind of ache or need that doesn’t go away until we get water. In just the same way, all of us – simply because we’re human – have a thirst for greatness. It’s part of who we are as creatures. It comes from deep inside us.
The biggest question that you and I will face every day, as long as we breathe, is this one: How do I ease that thirst in my life for greatness, for beauty, for meaning; for something more than who and what I am? Finding the answer is the great hope of our lives.
That’s the purpose of World Youth Day – to lead us to the only thing that can really satisfy our thirst and our hope. Rio de Janeiro is a beautiful city. These days together are exciting and fun, and they should be. But we’re here for something more than a vacation. We’re here to begin a new and deeper kind of life. And we can only do that by meeting Jesus Christ.
On a hot day, the worst thing a person can drink is salt water. The water looks wet, and it is. But the salt makes you even thirstier; and if you drink enough of it, it can make you very ill. That’s a pretty good way of thinking about the noise and distractions in the world around us. The world pretends to have the toys and techniques that can make us happy. But it can’t give us what we really need. We’re restless and thirsty for “something more” in life, and instead the world gives us an ocean of salt water in our magazines, music and newspapers; on our cellphones, TVs and computers. We’re drowning and dying of thirst at the same time.
Here’s another thing: The world can’t give us real heroes. Movie stars, athletes, teachers, bankers, judges, politicians, even religious leaders, often let us down. Here in Brazil, just last month, hundreds of thousands of people fought with police and protested against government policies. Human beings are sinners – all of us; even the best of us. Sooner or later, left on our own, we always disappoint each other and ourselves.
Christians have something better than the world; better than any celebrity; the only hero who will never disappoint us. We have a God who offers us his very life. We have God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who said, “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink,” and out of every believer’s heart “shall flow rivers of living water” (Jn 7:37-38). Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Mt 5:6).
Without God, the whole world is salt. When we lose our sense of God, we lose our sense of hope. Without the friendship of other believers — people who share in a passion for discipleship and mission — life becomes just a constant cycle of eating, sleeping, working and buying, until one day it stops. And then we’re buried. And then we’re forgotten.
God made us for more than that. The next time you walk into a shopping mall, take a good look around. People are obsessed with consuming things. They do it to fill a hole in their lives. They spend vast amounts of money not just on what they need, but on a whole range of little narcotics like clothes, tools, toys, gadgets – anything to take away the discomfort and loneliness that come from living without some higher purpose.
We’ll never find our meaning in material things. Life is more than a biological process and a bundle of appetites. And what makes us human beings – things like love, desire, mercy, generosity, nobility, heroism, self-sacrifice – can’t be reduced to physics and chemistry. Science can answer a lot questions about the material universe. But it can never tell us the most important things. That’s not what science is designed to do. If we put our hope in science, we’ll learn a great many useful facts, but we’ll never truly understand who we are. And we’ll never begin to know who God is.
In the face of so many pressures today to succeed, with so many broken marriages and difficult family situations, a lot of young people fall into depression. They grow lonely. They grow fearful. Some turn to alcohol, or drugs, or violence, or pornography. God offers us something much greater. God made us not for mediocrity and failure, but for glory and joy. He created us to share in his love forever. That purpose is hardwired into our nature. Nothing short of it will ever do for us. That’s why it’s so heart-breaking when young people fall for the lies and confusion they see all around them in our culture. The hunger they feel for something more in life is very real. But not knowing how to satisfy it, they settle for stones. And pretty soon, they start to think that stones are all there is.
I don’t want any of you to settle for anything less than the dignity that belongs to you as a gift of God.
At some point, all of us have received a gift without knowing the reason. It wasn’t our birthday or Christmas. It was just someone’s free act of kindness. We did nothing to deserve it. It’s simply a delight and a surprise. We’re not “entitled” to a gift; that’s what makes it a gift. And so it is with God. God’s grace can only be received as a gift. We never earn it. That’s why our culture of buying and owning and consuming – so much of it built around personal selfishness — has a hard time with real Christian faith.
The other problem with a culture based on consuming is that once we possess something, we don’t like to give it up. Life becomes all about me – my property, my options, my choices, my possessions. It is hard to share things that are “mine.” But the whole point of receiving a gift is to share it with others. No gift that God gives is meant to be mine alone.
What we yearn for is intimacy; real intimacy. Not the intimacy of hooking up for sex or phony friendships; but the intimacy of being known and loved, deeply and truly, by another, and then returning that love in the same way. That’s how God knows and loves us, and there’s a thirst in each of us to return that love. When a love for God burns at the center of our hearts, then all of our other relationships – with our parents and families, with friends and peers, even with strangers – become windows of grace.
Living the Gospel of Jesus Christ – a life that satisfies our deepest thirst – isn’t easy. If it were easy, everyone would do it, and the whole world would be Christian. But it demands humility and patience. It asks us to forget our own needs in order to love God and other people. And many times, other people aren’t easy to love. They ignore us. They hurt us. They disappoint us. Yet Jesus still asks us to follow him and love them as he loves them – just as he loves each of us.
The way of discipleship can be hard, but it’s also intensely attractive because it’s built on a friendship with God and other believers; cemented with our acts of generosity and self-sacrifice; and it shapes us into the men and women God intends us to be. Italians have a wonderful word that describes the nature of real friendship. The word is simpatico. It means a communion of heart and mind. It goes deeper than the surface compatibility of two people to their inner selves.
Simpatico implies true intimacy. When we find this kind of mutual attraction, it changes our world. Our horizons broaden, and life has a new energy and fire. This is the kind of relationship God wants with each one of us. A true encounter with God changes everything, and it breaks us open to new possibilities we could never have imagined before.
Who am I? What am I doing here? What was I made for? We human beings need to know that we belong, that we matter to someone, that we’re not just animated carbon in a cooling universe, but that our lives make a difference. We need to love and be loved. God fulfills that deepest longing. Even if the people around us let us down, even when we let ourselves down, God never stops loving us. His love makes each of us unique and precious, and invites our generous love in return.
Sooner or later, we all need to decide what kind of mark we want to leave on the world. Don’t sell yourself short. Follow Jesus Christ with all your energy and zeal. And there’s no time to delay. Begin here, today – now.
● Blessed John Henry Newman spent his entire life seeking to quench his thirst for God. His search led him in directions he never intended – away from the Anglican Church of his birth to become a convert, then a priest and eventually a cardinal of the Catholic Church. His life was never focused on ease and consumption but on struggle and service. But very few men in the last 200 years have had a life richer in friends and meaning and holiness than Cardinal Newman. Listen to his words before we close:
● 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 may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection 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.
Therefore, I will trust him, whatever 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. He does nothing in vain. He knows what he is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, he knows what he is about.
May we make his words our own, today and always.