By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
For a number of reasons – being risk-averse, lacking knowledge or fearing a negative reaction – Catholics generally are not good at sharing their faith, said Dominican Father David Caron, vicar of evangelization for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
That reluctance may be even greater among teenage Catholics, who have to stand up to peer pressure and to the self-criticism that they do not know enough to answer questions about their faith. Also, many teens have not seen adults effectively share their faith.
“We’ve been told, ‘Don’t talk about religion and don’t talk about politics,’” Father Caron said, introducing a full-day workshop Feb. 16, “Stories of Grace,” in which Dr. Leonard DeLorenzo, director of undergraduate studies at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, offered seven hours of practical exercises to teens on how they can identify and craft personal stories that have the power to express the essence of their faith to others.
The gathering included students and campus ministers from 15 archdiocesan high schools as well as teenagers from several parishes.
DeLorenzo said the techniques he believes are effective are not “Jedi mind tricks” and they are “not about spouting clichés like, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’”
“I’m about taking stuff that is serious,” DeLorenzo said. “If something hurts, call it hurt. If it’s suffering, call it suffering. If it’s absence or loss, just recognize it. Look more closely to see how God can draw near. This is not about waving a wand and saying, ‘I really didn’t suffer.’
“These are what I call ‘stories of grace.’ It’s learning how to craft and tell stories of grace, but you don’t have to tell everything all at once. It means learning to see specific images and learning to tell those stories to somebody else.”
A childhood hurt lingers
DeLorenzo offered several personal stories. One was wrapped around his parents’ divorce when he was 7 years old. Although he never expressed his feelings of hurt to others, he recalled going on a field trip in which he and his classmates were asked to walk into a field for a scavenger hunt.
A plastic orange bird was mentioned as the most prized thing to find, and, for some reason, DeLorenzo said that was the only thing he wanted to search for. After looking for 30 minutes and finding other things – but tossing them to the side – DeLorenzo heard a teacher blow the whistle, indicating time was up.
“I was deflated, but I was obedient,” DeLorenzo said. “As I changed direction, I felt something under my foot – this plastic orange bird. I picked it up, and I don’t remember anything after that. My Mom was still gone. Everything inside me was absence and hiding the absence. But here I am, 31 years later, and this is a memory I have of my childhood. I was a little boy who wanted to hope for something, and it was there unexpectedly. It didn’t change things. It wasn’t a miracle. But it was a memory of being surprised.”
Literally washed clean
DeLorenzo also told a story of being a college student studying in Rome, wounded by personal sin and a broken relationship, and finding himself scaling a mountain in the dark. Another hiker told him to keep going up the mountain to see a gorgeous pool of water.
Despite falling in the mud, he continued to climb and eventually found the pool. DeLorenzo washed the mud off his arms and saw the dirt swirl around the clear water in the pool and then disappear down the side of the mountain.
“I don’t remember coming down the mountain,” DeLorenzo said. “All I remember was that pool, feeling the water against my arms and feeling the dirt going down the side. It didn’t magically change everything, but it changed the way I see things.”
DeLorenzo worked with the students to look for small events in their lives that they may have overlooked – images that might show how God has been personally present to them. One way to be more aware of these moments, DeLorenzo said, is to keep a daily or weekly journal to notice “the signs of God’s grace in your life.”
He asked students to recall when they had experienced being loved, when they had learned to hope, when they had experienced healing or forgiveness, or when they had healed or forgiven someone else.
Workshop made me think
Isabelle Giangrosso, an Ursuline junior, said the workshop was effective “in helping you find a story in your everyday life and finding God in that story, rather trying to find a story in your memory that already had God in it. I started thinking about some stories. They’re not fully formulated, but I think I’ve got a good start on one.”
Ursuline sophomore Olivia Elam said the plan is to find time during the school day where students and teachers can “come and listen to our stories, and then maybe we can branch off to see if they want to start writing their own stories and keep moving it along.”
DeLorenzo said crafting and sharing stories of grace does not seek to replace “liturgical participation, sacramental engagement, theological education or scriptural reading.”
“There is only one Lord, the one who comes to us in the Eucharist, who speaks to us in Scripture, and who is handed on to us in the tradition,” he said. “What we are doing when we claim and share our stories of grace is carrying out the mission given to us at the end of Mass: to go forth and proclaim the Gospel with our lives. These stories both allow us to recognize the ways in which the one Lord has looked upon us in love and challenge us to share that Good News with others. This is very much the mission of evangelization.”
A podcast with many stories of grace is available for free at https://soundcloud.com/user-262513791. DeLorenzo is the author of “Witness: Learning to Tell the Stories of Grace That Illumine Our Lives.”