This morning, I got an e-mail from the young man who oversees our parish youth group and altar servers. He’s a graduate student at Fordham, working on his doctorate, and arranged an Advent Prayer Service for the teenagers.
He wanted to tell me what happened:
We had placed candles around that table and placed in the center a lantern. I’d chosen the lantern to be a key symbol for our group because of a story that was told to me in high school. We talked a little about my love for Christmas as a season. I told them that while I still cry at Claymation Christmas Specials, I’ve grown to appreciate Advent much more. The preparation of Advent, the anticipation of the day of Jesus’ birth, is what makes the season so special. Not the music, or the tree or even “Mickey’s A Christmas Carol.” I told the group that in that spirit of preparation and joyful anticipation, we would gather to pray for God to enter into our lives.
I started by explaining the meaning of the lantern. Saint Marcellin Champagnat (who founded the Marist Brothers, the order that ran Archbishop Molloy, where I went to high school) was returning home with a fellow brother when they were caught in a terrible snowstorm. They quickly became lost. Marcellin knelt down and prayed to Mary for aid. Then he and his companion spotted a lantern far off in the distance. They followed the light to the home of a local farmer. When they arrived the farmer couldn’t explain why he had go outside with the lantern in the snow storm. All he could say was that he felt some force compelling him to do so.
Anyway I told this story and explained that lanterns guide us home, back to those things which are most important. We often lose track of those things, but if like Marcellin Champagnat we ask God for guidance he will help us find our way back. He will send us a lantern.
We then did a short Gospel reading (Matt 37-44). I spoke a little bit about seeing miracles and God’s messages in everyday life. I used the example of the cop who gave the boots to the homeless man as an example.
Now the really cool part. We gave out little pieces of paper and gold pencils. I then asked everyone to take a few minutes for themselves and pray—to take advantage of this rare opportunity (no TV, no cell phones, no video games or other distractions) and to have a conversation with God. When they were ready they were to write their prayer on the scrap of paper. ( I asked that they not pray for an Xbox BUT other than that their prayer was between them and God) While this was on, I played some Gregorian Chant (Yes,I got them to listen to it and not complain!!) After a few minutes I told them that, when they were ready, one at a time they could come and place their prayers in the lantern and watch them burn. Like the incense symbolizing our prayers going up to God. You would be amazed at how seriously all of these young men and women (all 12-15) took this. Their hands trembled as they placed their prayers in the lantern.
It was really an amazing thing to experience. One of the kids stopped me the next day and said this:
“You know I loved that prayer service. When my mom came to pick me up I was crying. She asked me why I was upset. I told her I wasn’t. I was crying because it was the first time I had prayed since I was a little girl. I had gone to mass and been an altar server but I always just said the words, I never stopped to actually pray. To talk to God about my life and think about His place in it. I really needed that and that why I was crying. Thanks for helping me to do that.”
I wanted to share this with you because so often I hear people complain about the state of the youth in the Catholic Church or society in general. But here on a Friday night were nearly 50 young men and women who give up so much of their time to help each other and their church. They serve as altar servers and choir members. Fifteen of them volunteered to usher at the Christmas concert and sat and listened to Handel. Several of them suggested to me that rather than have a Christmas party this year we should take that money and donate it to St. Jude’s. Read that again. They came to me. And on a Friday night, when they could have been at the movies or anyplace else, they sat and prayed for God to enter into their lives. Inspirational, no matter their age.
God love ‘em, every one of them. Know hope.