Fr. Roger J. Landry
Mass of Thanksgiving for the World Youth Alliance
St. Vincent Ferrer Church, New York City
March 23, 2007
Gen 1:26-31; Lk 1:46-55; James 1:17-26; Jn 4:34-38
1) Throughout history, God has chosen young people for great tasks. The Old Testament, or what the Spanish speaking world calls “the Old Alliance,” describes for us many of their stories. There was David, who, with faith in God and a simple slingshot, took down Goliath who looked down upon him with derision because of his youth. There was Jeremiah, whom the Lord consecrated from the womb and chose as a very young man to go convert the hearts of his people, despite his protestations that he was too young. There was Esther, the beautiful young girl who was the Lord’s chosen vessel to save his people in exile at the risk of her life. There’s also Gideon, Samuel, Elisha and many more. The history of the Church, which is the flourishing of the “new alliance,” features scores of others summoned by God in their youth to do great things: Saints John, Stephen, Timothy, Dorothy, Cecilia, Barbara, Lucy, Agnes, Agatha, Athanasius, Joan, Francis, Clare, Thomas, Catherine, Charles, Aloysius, Bernadette, Therese, Maria Goretti, Francisco, Jacinta, Pier Giorgio. These are just some of the more famous examples. In every generation, God has called young people, filled them with himself, his power and his love, and given them great and important tasks to help bring about his kingdom, a culture of life and a civilization of love among all his children.
2) Tonight we are here together to celebrate one way God has continued to call, inspire and raise young people to great missions in our time. We are here to praise him and to thank him for all he’s done to help bring young people from so many nations of the world into a new alliance that is already doing so much good to promote the authentic good of the human family. We’re also here in prayerful vigil to implore his help, as this alliance marks a big transition tomorrow, that God, who has begun this good work in so many young people, may continue to bless it and guide it.
3) Tonight’s readings, chosen prayerfully and purposefully by Anna Halpine, help us to focus our praise, because they contain some of the essential seeds of God’s revelation that have flourished and born so much fruit in the hearts of the young people who have been part of the World Youth Alliance over these past eight years. In the first reading from the book of Genesis, we see the truth that God has made the human person in his image and likeness. This is the root of the human person’s dignity, the basis for his intrinsic worth. We are not some random conjunction of chemicals and biological processes, but someone formed out of love by the Creator himself in accordance with a plan. We are specifically formed in the image and likeness of the one God who reveals himself in the New Testament as “love” (1 Jn 4:16). God is an eternal triune communion of persons in love, a Lover, a Beloved and the Love between them that is so strong and real that it takes on personality. Made in God’s image and likeness, we are called to exist in a communion of persons in love. We see this first in the family, as Pope John Paul II has pointed out in his document on the family (Familiaris Consortio) and in his theology of the body, which constitutes an important part of the training of new members of the world youth alliance. But we’re also supposed to see it in the Church and among the human family. Others are not strangers, or aliens, or clumps of cells, or useless consumers, or somehow more or less human than we. All are created by God in his image and likeness, have an innate relationship with him, are deeply valued by Him. They should be treasured by all of us. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in teaching about human dignity, grounded it not just in the human person’s beginning but in his end. “The root reason for human dignity lies in man’s call to communion with God. From the very circumstance of his origin man is already invited to converse with God. For man would not exist were he not created by God’s love and constantly preserved by it; and he cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and devotes himself to His Creator” (Gaudium et Spes, 19). The members of the World Youth Alliance have gotten this message, tried to live it and tried to spread it.
4) That passage from the second Vatican Council is also a great introduction to tonight’s second reading from the Letter of St. James. The Council fathers introduced the truth that God made the human person free, so that we could use our freedom to acknowledge God’s love and devote ourselves out of love to Him and to those whom He loves. Our freedom is not an end in itself but a means to help us to become like God who freely created us and for us has freely done so much more. The ultimate purpose of our freedom is so that we might love God and others just like God loves us and them. This love is not a warm feeling of attraction toward others, but a real commitment to give of ourselves to them and for them. The fathers get much more specific later on in the document about our origin, our destiny, and our call to love. They write, “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light…. Christ… fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (GS 22). The way Christ does this above all is by showing us what love really is and calling us to follow him along this path: “The Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, ‘that all may be one. . . as we are one’ (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s children in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself (GS 24).” The only path to true fulfillment, to receiving all human life has to offer, is through freely giving oneself to God and others.
5) This is what St. James points to in the second reading. He says that the word of God, which we find in Genesis, which we discover incarnate in Christ, is like a mirror that shows us who we really are. St. James contrasts two types of responses, two types of people who look into that mirror. The first are idle listeners, those who really don’t pay close attention to what they see and who don’t act on it. St. James uses the analogy that they look into the mirror showing them who they really are but then, going away, forget what they look like. He says they are self-deceived, because they have forgotten who they are and have freely chosen a different self-identity. They have forgotten their true image, which is a reflection of the God of love. The second group of people, he says, “peer” into the mirror and discover there “the perfect law, the law of freedom,” and they “persevere” in their glance. The more we look in that mirror, underneath all of the make-up we wear, underneath the scars, the tears and all the faces we put on, in the deepest x-ray of our identity, there is “the perfect law of freedom,” by which we discover who we really are. We glimpse the mind of God, the purpose of our freedom, the meaning of our life. And we will discover them in greater depth, St. James tells us, only if we become “doers” of that word and put that “perfect law of freedom” into practice unselfishly to give to others the greatest and most complete gift we can — the gift of ourselves.
6) Peering into this “perfect law of freedom” and becoming “doers” of what they see has been one of the reasons, I’m convinced, for the great growth of the World Youth Alliance. The members of the World Youth Alliance have been looking into this “mirror” of “the law of perfect freedom” for years. In it, they have gone way beyond Narcissus’ self-absorbed glance. They have peered deep beyond the surface and found the guiding principle to order their choices. They’ve discovered that freedom is not the ability to do whatever we want, but rather the persevering pursuit of what God asks of us. The more they have freely embraced that word and acted on it, the more they have said yes to what they have seen in the depth of that mirror, the freer they have become, the more contagiously and radiantly joyous, and the more fruitful. One of the reasons for their success, I believe, is that by acting on that word and giving it their flesh, they have in turn become mirrors for so many others — both young people as well as those who hunger for rejuvenation. They have reminded others who have glanced into that same mirror and forgotten who they are to take another look, to discover who they are and who they can become, and to respond to the challenge them to join an alliance of those who are trying to build a new culture according to the light they’ve seen in that mirror. As St. James tells us at the end of his passage, “Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act — they will be blessed in their doing,” and we are all here tonight to thank God for all his blessings in the World Youth Alliance’s doings.
7) The tremendous fruit of the World Youth Alliance over the past eight years is ascribable, first and foremost, to God. Jesus teaches us this truth by another image in tonight’s Gospel. Growth in any apostolic undertaking is due first to the seed of God’s revelation, then to the Sower, and finally to the hard-working laborer in the vineyard who harvests. “Look around you,” Jesus says, “and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit… so that sower and reaper — God and his diligent co-worker — may rejoice together.” This image can be applied to the work of the World Youth Alliance in at least two senses.
a. The first refers to the harvest of young people who have participated in the Alliance. As Anna Halpine once told me, “Young people who believe in life, who are willing to give their lives for a great cause are numerous, are white for the harvest. It is a great harvest! The Alliance simply reaps what is there, those who are ready and looking to be put to work. It is a sign of great hope for the world and for each of us to know that all of the little actions that God and families and individuals have done over the years can now come together as one great action of witness and movement in the world.… This is what the Alliance builds from, and we are able to move quickly since the harvest is so white.”
b. The second sense of the passage refers to those who are still waiting to be harvested. Since they are white and ripe, there is an urgency to the work of harvesting, otherwise their lives may be wasted and lost. As Jesus said elsewhere, “The harvest is great but the laborers are few. Pray to the Master of the Harvest to send many laborers into his harvest” (Mt 9:37-38). The World Youth Alliance has accomplished so much in such a short time, but there’s still so much more work to do, so many more young people who are looking into the wrong mirror, so many adults, cultures and nations who have forgotten who they are and fail to respect the dignity of the human person. Looking upon this vast worldwide field, we are here tonight to pray to the Harvest Master to send many more workers, at whatever hour of the day, in whatever capacity, to roll up their sleeves and help to reap what He and so many others have sown and helped bring to maturity.
8 ) Those considerations bring us at last to the Magnificat Canticle that we sang tonight in response to God’s word. Out of all the young people God ever created, formed and called to do great things for his kingdom, the most important was a young girl from a rather obscure place from which no one anticipated any good could come (cf. Jn 1:46). As this great hymn of praise shows, Mary was ripe for God’s harvest when the Archangel Gabriel appeared. Her “fiat,” the great “yes” that changed all of human history, was not a U-turn or abrupt course correction in her life, but the natural and supernatural outgrowth of a young woman who had been peering into God’s perfect law of freedom from the time she could first see. She was a girl fully educated in her faith, fully open and dedicated to God, unhesitant, courageous, totally trusting in his goodness, wisdom and love, no matter what he asked of her, no matter how difficult the sacrifices entailed. The verses of her Magnificat are a testimony of how deep she had perseveringly peered into the mysteries of God. They are taken from the words and actions of so many of the heroic and holy women of the “old alliance” — Hannah, Jael, and Judith — as well from several of the psalms. She knew them so well that, just a few days after the annunciation and incarnation, she was able to see that all that was prophesied was coming to fulfillment in her. The seeds of the word of God had been planted deeply by God in soil he had prepared since before her conception. They had been watered with love by her parents in such a way that she was able to respond with perfect freedom and become a “doer of the word,” treasuring that word so much in her heart that it could literally take on her flesh. In her, as in so many of the young heroes and heroines of the old and new alliance, the Lord once again showed his predilection for the humble, the lowly, the trusting, the pure and the faithful. “The Lord has looked with favor on the humility of his servant,” her spirit rejoiced, “and exalted the lowly.”
9) At the beginning of the World Youth Alliance, the Lord chose another humber young girl and gave her a great task. She came from a family with no worldly wealth, connection or power — one lowly in the eyes of the world. As Anna says with holy pride, their only treasure was God and the intangible gifts of faith and love God gave them. As she and her younger brothers and sisters were growing up, they prayed much together, studied the faith together, and examined the crisis of the modern world together. This was done with the clear intention that they would go out into the world as defenders of the truth, as voices for the voiceless. While many of her geographically-challenged contemporaries would not have been able to point out Cairo or Beijing on a map, Anna and her family were reading the documents coming out from U.N. conferences held in those cities, understanding the battle of ideas that was being waged. All of that meant that eight years ago, when as a music student here in New York she witnessed 32 young people take the floor at a U.N. Conference on Population and Development and, supposedly on behalf of all three billion of the world’s youth, ask for total autonomy from their parents and unfettered access to sex and abortions, she was prepared and willing to give her full and free fiat to what the Lord asked of her. Unlike the Rich Young Man in the Gospel, who was unable to go beyond the commandments to follow Christ along the path of total self-giving, she was able to do so readily and with joy, for no salary except an eternal pension. She — and the group of friends who, moved by the same ideas and values, surrounded her — didn’t waver even when it seemed like there would be no money to pay their growing stack of bills, even when they had barely anything to eat, even when they needed to share the free floor space where they were sleeping at night with cockroaches. It didn’t matter, because it wasn’t about their comfort. It wasn’t about them. And that’s why God was able to work through Anna and so many members of the World Youth Alliance over the past eight years. They gave God a blank check and trustingly allowed Him to spend them however he wanted. And, unsurprisingly, God invested all the talents he gave them in ways that have borne dividends for the whole world.
10) The same Mighty One who has done great things to and through Mary of Nazareth has done great things to and through Anna of Canada and through those who have been associated with her. That’s the only explanation of how a young music student from an unconnected Canadian family could suddenly launch an international organization that in a short time has begun to have real influence and clout. As Anna told me, “The fact that the World Youth Alliance has succeeded obviously points to something other than me. The fact that it has grown so quickly is testimony to the ideas on which it is founded, and to the numerous people who have stepped forward to make this into a reality. It cannot be attributed to me, for I was only the instrument who was used to begin all of this. The growth of the Alliance points so clearly to the reality that this must be a project close to the heart of God.”
11) We are all here tonight in this beautiful Church because we believe that project is indeed close to God’s heart. We are here because we believe that in every age God chooses and calls young people and gives them important missions for the whole Church. We know that , as Pope John Paul II never ceased to remind young people, they are not just a crucial part of the future of the world, but an indispensable part of the present. Their enthusiasm, their energy, their hopefulness, their idealism, their generosity are meant to make us all younger, to teach us about what we’ve forgotten, to help us become like little children so as to enter into God’s kingdom. The young members of the World Youth Alliance have embodied that enthusiasm, energy, hopefulness, idealism and generosity. Youth is a time, John Paul II taught, of great questions, as young people try to figure out the great riddles of life, to solve the mystery of the human “I.” It is a greatly important time, because the choices that young people make today condition both who they will be tomorrow and what our society will be like. We thank God tonight that so many young people, in their search for meaning, have discovered it in the mirror of the truths about the human person revealed by God. We thank God that they have not been idle hearers of that word, but doers of it. We thank Him for inspiring them with a zeal freely to give themselves for others, to build up a civilization of life and love founded on the dignity of every person God has created. And as another Anna passes on the mirror of the law of perfect freedom to another Mary, we ask him to keep this project, his Alliance, ever close to his heart!