What gave me this perspective was re-reading some of Jane Austen's novels and realizing that in the 1800s, it was considered perfectly normal for a man in his late twenties or early thirties to fall in love with and marry a fifteen or sixteen year old girl. And for her to love him back.
Of course, what changed all that was society's determination that young people - especially girls - needed years of a better education before they married. But I believe we've lost something in the process. We've delayed the onset of maturity in our young people because in many cases they have, in reality, too little real-life responsibility.
Sure, we expect them to study. To clean up their rooms. (Good luck with that, I say, remembering my teens.) To plan for job training or college and to get a Driver's License. To dream. To date. To become involved in sports, drama, music, art, student government, - all good things. Yet - they're capable of so much more than we often give them credit or opportunity for! We parents - and grand-parents - are the ones who often don't see the dawning maturity, the wisdom, the idealism, the desire to give and make a difference that lies shining in those young, brilliant, beautiful eyes.
Why do young teens like the "Little House" books so much? Because those young pioneers were responsible for keeping their family alive and were an integral part of their households. They sometimes had to make life or death decisions. Their assistance MATTERED. Is it any wonder that if youths have too much time on their hands and don't believe that they have a vital role to play in life right now that they can lose spirit, lose hope, descend into addictions, premature sexual activity, depression, and self-pity?
During his current trip to Poland for World Youth Day, Pope Francis took time to visit and pray at the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, which is rightly known as the world's pre-eminent monument to evil and depravity. Within its walls, an estimated 1.1 to 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, were killed during the Second World War. It was one of many concentration camps. Challenged to the depths of their souls by this looming, overpowering evil, ordinary Polish men, women, and teens, mostly Christians, quietly defied the demand by Hitler and his forces for them to be quiet, passive, and obedient puppets who looked away from this imprisonment and execution of innocents. Instead, these ordinary people went out and saved lives.
Pope Francis took time to meet twenty-five people whom a commission of the Supreme Court of Israel have named "Righteous Among the Nations," a title which recognizes non-Jews who took substantial risks during the Holocaust to save Jewish lives. At least two of the twenty-five were very young when they took remarkable risks, endangering their own lives.
Ann Bando was twelve years old when she began helping her mother, Janine Stupnicka. Janine was employed by the Nazis. She managed residential buildings in Warsaw, including some in the infamous Jewish Ghetto. Appalled by what she encountered, Janine asked her young daughter to aid her in helping these suffering Jews. The two would smuggle in bread to feed starving families. Eventually they secretly took in several Jews, providing them with shelter and helping them obtain forged documents that allowed them to survive.
The Pope also met with Witold Lisowski, who was thirteen years old when he found his close Jewish friend, Dudek Inwentarz, exhausted and starving in a forest after fleeing a convoy transporting Jews to the Treblinka Death Camp. Witold, obviously knowing what his family's attitude was towards this terrible genocide, brought Dudek home to his mother, where they sheltered him for several weeks until neighbors became suspicious. Neighbors who feared for their own lives if Hitler's men found anyone in their village sheltering these Jews who were being murdered for no understandable reason. So Dudek hid in the forest again, and Witold brought him food and clothing on a regular basis and kept him company until the Red Army liberated the area in 1944.
What I find fascinating about these two stories is, first of all, these two mothers' attitudes. They had asked themselves what was important in their lives. Then they had the wisdom and courage to build their lives around their answers, their beliefs and ideals. They didn't shield or protect their daughter and son from the danger that was going on. They didn't leave them out of their rescue missions. They believed in their capability. They gave them the challenge and the chance to risk their lives for a noble cause.
Ann's mother must have worried terribly every time her daughter was in charge of smuggling bread past the Nazis' murderous guards. Witold's mother must have quietly wept every time he sneaked into the forest with food and clothing for Dudek and to keep him company. But these mothers simply saw - really saw - other human beings, with as much dignity as themselves, who were in need of life-saving aid. They taught their children to have this simple, pure vision - or their children "caught" the vision from them. They allowed their children the ultimate opportunity to become mature, loving, merciful and compassionate adults. To become truly holy pre-teens.
Pope Francis believes that our young people are capable of being holy, mature, responsible, and indispensable today - not tomorrow. He addressed hundreds of thousands of young men and women gathered in Krakow, Poland, for World Youth Day with words of affirmation, encouragement and challenge.
"It pains me to meet young people who seem to have opted for 'early retirement.' I worry when I see young people who have 'thrown in the towel' before the game has even begun, who are defeated before they begin to play, who walk around glum as if life has no meaning.... When Jesus touches a young person's heart, he or she truly becomes capable of great things....A merciful heart is able to be a place of refuge for those who are without a home, or have lost their home; it is able to build a home and a family for those forced to emigrate; it knows the meaning of tenderness and compassion. A merciful heart can share its bread with the hungry and welcome refugees and migrants."
On Friday, the Pope led the huge, reverent crowd in the Way of the Cross - a fourteen station representation of Jesus' Passion and Death. The Pope pointed out that without Jesus' sacrifice of his life and death, without Jesus, Son of God, becoming the ultimate saving Victim who conquered death, the whole world would have degenerated into an Auschwitz-Birkenau, a world without mercy or hope. God became totally lovingly intimate with us and embraced all that human beings endure in the Person of Jesus - and so no human beings can be totally alone again. "By embracing the wood of the cross, Jesus embraced the nakedness, the hunger and thirst, the loneliness, pain, and death of men and women of all time."
Pope Francis addressed the ultimate question about suffering:
"Where is God, if evil is present in our world, if there are men and women who are hungry and thirsty, homeless, exiles, and refugees? Where is God when cruel diseases break the bonds of life and affection? Or when children are exploited and demeaned, and they too suffer from grave illness? Where is God, among the anguish of those who doubt and are troubled in spirit? These are questions which, humanly speaking, have no answer. We can only look to Jesus and ask him. And Jesus' answer is this: 'God is in them.'"
But the Pope also reminded all young people - and we, their parents and grand-parents - that God, in Jesus, is also in us. Jesus wants to use all of us as concrete responses to the needs and sufferings of humanity. "Jesus wants you to be signs of his merciful love for our time! To enable you to carry out this mission, he shows you the way of personal commitment and self-sacrifice. It is the Way of the Cross."
Since World War II, there have been numerous wars, genocides, and terrorist attacks across the world. And they continue to this day. People in the United States engage in words and acts of discrimination, insults, and murder against people of different political beliefs, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientation. There is discrimination and reverse discrimination. Men subject women to exclusion and domination. The poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the "work slaves," the vulnerable elderly and unborn, are still with us. And the choice is ours: what is really important to us? Do we have the wisdom and courage to live out our answer?
Do we become what the Nazis praised - and praise - blind, deaf, dumb, obedient puppets, pretending that these acts of humans' inhumanity to humans don't go on? Do we fear getting involved because we don't want to give up our precious time or begin to care too much? Are we afraid, in the end, to go into the many forests of suffering around us to find the one who cowers behind the trees, afraid of everyone else?
Mercy begins with us. We are the ones who, by word and example, teach it to our children and grand-children. We throw the ball of responsibility and caring to them and challenge them to catch it and get into the game. We trust them to do truly important and life-changing things, even if there is a risk, because our greatest desire is for them to become merciful, loving, compassionate adults. As we've seen, even twelve year olds can be adults in those qualities.
Mercy: Opportunity. Future. Commitment. Trust. Openness. Hospitality. Compassion. Dreams. All the very best that we can give to those we love the most. And in giving these qualities to them, we give them a life, a dream, worth living.