It’s hard to believe, but three years have passed since the tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The events of that day remind all of us---individually and collectively---that our experience as human beings has two sides.
The first side of our human experience is its tragic side, namely, that young people can go so terribly far astray. It’s hard to conceive how anyone---especially a young person---could inflict appalling pain and anguish upon others and themselves by perpetrating evil.
Looking back to the days immediately following the Columbine tragedy, I remember the television pundits and politicians saying that something was terribly awry. Of course, they posited all sorts of explanations and programs to deal with what I recognize as the deadly effects of sin. Yet, only one of those pundits and politicians I heard actually uttered the word "sin" to characterize the heinous behavior manifesting itself that day in Littleton, Colorado. That person was William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education and a dedicated Roman Catholic.
How could teenagers perpetrate such sin? Unfortunately, the simple explanation is the one that most people don’t want to hear. Were Peter to stand in our midst today---as he did in Jerusalem nearly two millennia ago---and utter the words "save yourselves from this corrupt generation," I wonder how many would link events like Columbine with the tremendous challenges confronting parents today. And I am thinking especially about those parents who are working so hard to instill in their children a love and reverence for biblical truth and moral authority.
Sadly, what is depicted on television more oftentimes than not are parents who are hardly working to instill in their children a love and reverence for biblical truth and moral authority.
Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, CNN covered a story about what Spring Break now means for many high school juniors and seniors. Teaching at a university, I never have quite understood how annual, week-long, unchaperoned treks to Fort Lauderdale, Key West, or Cancun in early March should be considered a "rite-of-passage" that parents owe their college-aged children. We all know that these treks immerse minors in a culture of underage drinking as well as dabbling in illegal drugs and sex. That many parents willingly subsidize these treks cannot be contested. And, that these treks place these minors in the middle of a host of what used to be called "near occasions of sins" is also uncontestable. As an undergraduate, I always felt grateful that I was able just to go to college. Spring break? That was a time to be home catching up or getting ahead on work for school and lining up a summer job.
But, this CNN story related how parents now are sending their high school juniors and seniors on Spring Break trips to Cancun, Mexico. Why Cancun? The drunken teenagers interviewed had no shame stating the truth: it’s because the legal age for consuming alcoholic beverages in Cancun is sixteen. No parental supervision. No chaperones. Just high school juniors and seniors having the week-long, parentally subsidized party of their lives!
Then, the reporter asked one couple why they allowed their son to take this trek. His mother responded something along the lines: "We think it is a good way for our son to begin his transition to college life." And when the reporter asked their son about his relationship with his parents, he said: "They’re my best friends. They always encourage and support me." Looking a bit hung over and bleary-eyed and hoisting a Corona in one hand, the fellow waved to the camera and slurred, "Hi Mom. Hi Dad."
Oh, and lest I forget, this interview was being conducted in this fellow’s hotel room. And, during the interview, his roommate emerged from the shower dressed in her terrycloth robe to select her outfit for the evening. Their plans? To go to an all-night beach party. "Wahooo…."
After the report concluded with a scene from that party, the camera returned to the CNN anchor, Karen Costello. She looked stunned. The first thing she said was "I never thought of my parents being my friends. They were my parents and I had to listen to them." And, then, I was pleased to hear Karen Costello say she believed that sending unchaperoned high school juniors and seniors to Cancun was wrong. "Do you think I’m crazy? Send an email and we’ll read some of them on the air," she closed before taking a commercial break.
Tragedy doesn’t emerge out of some immediate, spur of the moment whim on the part of some lunatic or fringe group. No, a tragedy like Columbine High School emerges slowly and over long period of time. Tragedy evolves from anti-authoritarian aspirations that respond not to what biblical truth and moral authority dictate but to the seductive voices of evil which, slowly but surely, erodes biblical truth and moral authority, enslaving its devotees to sinful behaviors disguised as "freedom" and "choice." Tragedy thrives as a new generation to overturn what previous generations called "sinful." And true freedom is annihilated because very few if any people are willing to name the sin underlying the outcomes associated with this freely-chosen path to perdition.
And so, when a tragedy like that at Columbine High School arises, the television pundits and politicians ask, "What went wrong?" And just as quickly, they conclude that being a parent today is not as easy as it used to be.
Now, while the tools used to create a tragedy are more abundant and deadly now than in prior generations, it is no easier to be a parent today than it ever has been. In every generation, good parents must struggle valiantly to transmit to their children the biblical truths and moral virtues that will enable them to be the next generation’s heroic adults. These parents neither strive to be the "best friends" of their children nor do they subsidize annual treks into the glamorous dens of Sodom and Gomorrah. Instead, good parents in every generation struggle valiantly and against the tide of popular culture to weed out of their children the roots of vice which, if left unchecked, might well bloom in tragedy and the annihilation of true freedom.
Parents like these represent the second side of our human experience. This is its truly heroic side, namely, the virtue of women and men who do something---even to the point of sacrificing their lives---because they love God and neighbor more than they love themselves. On September 11th, a television reporter asked the Commissioner of the New York City Fire Department about how so many people---more than three hundred of whom were his comrades who had lost their lives earlier in the day---could be so heroic. In response, the commissioner said, "The truly heroic thing happens the day you take the oath. Everything after that is jsut a matter of duty."
Today’s gospel suggests that parental authority---the divine duty they bear---in any generation has very much to do with shepherding. I don’t know---and suspect that many of you also don’t know---all that much about sheep. But, research that I gleaned from a trip to Scotland several years ago taught me several things about sheep.
First of all, I learned that sheep are really dumb. In fact, sheep are so dumb that they will walk over a cliff or cross a hazardous road foraging about for food. Believe it or not, sheep need a shepherd because they seek what they want rather than consider what they need. But, as dumb as sheep are, I’ve learned that they are also very attentive. As they forage about looking for some tasty grass, sheep are ever-alert to their shepherd’s voice. And, when the shepherd calls, they amble back, although some sheep will bleat the entire trek back.
Second, experience teaches sheep that following the shepherd will not only satisfy their needs but also provide security. I’ve observed sheep moving away from the herd, testing the limits of the shepherd’s attention. So, shepherds possess a crook and border collies to assist in defining the borders and restraining the sheep. Sometimes, however, the shepherd has to seek out lost sheep and discipline them so that, in the future, the sheep will listen to the shepherd’s voice.
These images of the shepherd and sheep suggest what parental authority is and what it requires if we are to name "sin" for what it is and to "save ourselves from this corrupt generation." Obviously, parental authority is not a matter of exerting power over children, reducing them to slavery or servitude. And, parental authority is not established by seeking to be the "best friend" of one’s children. Instead, parental authority originates from love, the love parents have for each other and the love they express as spouses for their children. This is a love that provides what children truly need, that is not fearful about setting the boundaries defining appropriate behavior, and that will go to the farthest ends of the earth to bring the beloved home to safety. This is what inculcates true freedom in youth.
Given this base, parental authority involves:
Parents who are good shepherds lead their children to the rich and verdant pastures of biblical truth and moral authority. There they feast on the delights offered by rich family life. But this requires parents who are deeply and passionately in love with one another and whose love for their children bespeaks an intolerance for sin and upholds the authority of God. But, with God’s grace, these parents will live to see their children succeed in building virtuous homes for their grandchildren.
Pope John Paul wrote his 1981 apostolic exhortation, On the Family, after consultation with the worldwide Synod of Bishops. The document provides an in-depth treatment of value for couples preparing for marriage as well as for couples who want to reflect upon their marriage and family life from a distinctively Catholic perspective. One note of caution: Many couples have found the background materials presented in the first third of the document "rather tough going." They suggest, however, not skipping over these materials but "wading" through them as the document builds on this base in the ensuring two thirds of the document where, these couples have told me, "the pay off is worth the labor."
Does today’s homily raise any
question(s) that you would like