This is a story about some of the things young people have taught me.
There was a girl in my second grade class. She was new to our parish, strike one. She was different, strike two. Kids were making fun of her because her lips were blue all the time.
One day after recess we all got a lesson from an older person. No, this isn’t a “nun story” with a ruler and a thick Irish accent.
It was a nun though, and the visual memory of seeing her standing at the head of the classroom as we dutifully marched back in from the “little recess” has stayed with me all these years. This was the brief morning break where if you were lucky enough to find spare change under your dad’s chair that morning, you could buy an ice cream and maybe get a game of marbles in before the bell tolled your future.
Coming back from recess this time was different. Our nun was crying. It was the same feeling you got when you saw your nun in a grocery store or driving a car. You just never thought they did those kinds of things. And I had never seen a nun cry before.
Sister had heard about the kids who were making fun of the little girl with the blue lips. Not to paint myself as a saint — I did not partake in this teasing, as I knew this little girl and her older brother better than most. They moved into a house next door to my aunt, and her older brother would become one of my best friends. I did nothing to stop the teasing, so I consider myself complicit and deserving of the wrath the nun had in store for us.
The little girl with blue lips was in the nurse’s office after recess, so the nun took the opportunity to verbally blast us for our insensitivity and cruelty. She probably violated all kinds of confidentiality protocols, but she was on a roll and informed us all that the reason her lips were blue was that she had a very weak heart that wasn’t good at pumping blood efficiently. Sister insisted we should have been ashamed for our behavior and thankful that none of us miscreants had such a cross to bear as this little girl.
It worked. The teasing stopped.
That same year, the little girl with the blue lips had surgery to correct her defective heart. She did not survive the operation. The funeral, my first one where there was such a little casket, also left an indelible imprint on my heart and mind — and hopefully my soul. For the little girl with the blue lips always had a sweet disposition. She carried her cross during her short life with a strange happiness. Her adoptive parents, an older couple who took both the little girl and her brother into their home, were two of the most devout and loving people I have ever met.
I learned several things from this anecdote. Young people aren’t always the most reliable sources for mercy and kindness. Young people, like this special second grade girl, can be conduits of grace and holiness, but most of the important things in my life were put in my heart and my brain by someone older and wiser than I.
The lessons in real life are learned quite differently than the way they are via Disney animation heroines and heroes who always seem to be instructors to their elders. So, not to rain on the Synod parade, count me a little skeptical about what transpired and what fruit the past several weeks in Rome will bear.
The New Testament is certainly about listening…but the question is, who is doing the talking and who is doing the listening? Every time I hear scripture at Mass (or the times when I actually read it) and hear or read, “Amen, Amen I say to you,” it’s time to buckle your seatbelts because Jesus is about to say something important. It’s as if Jesus is saying to us all, “Hey, listen up!”
And I don’t recall (now I’m no biblical scholar, so maybe there is a passage somewhere) where Jesus asked for someone’s opinion on how things should run. He got plenty of guff from folks, but he either rebuked them or corrected them.
Being in tune to where young people are in their faith journey is a good thing. Letting young people call the tune is problematic.
Robert Brennan is a weekly columnist for Angelus online and in print. He has written for many Catholic publications, including National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He spent 25 years as a television writer, and is currently the Director of Communications for the Salvation Army California South Division.
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