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Seasonal Reflection: Teenagers Hungry for Jesus

by Francis Pompei, OFM

PompeiThe season of Lent offers a reminder to turn from sin and toward Christ. Through his more than three decades of ministry with high school students, Francis Pompei, OFM, has observed an eagerness in young people for such a life — to turn away from bullying and competition and toward a focus on prayer with Jesus. Below, he shares what the teens he has met — through both retreats and the Franciscan Mystery Players — have taught him.

Lent is different for every person who makes the journey to Easter, and that difference is formed for us by our past, the Church and others.

One of the greatest influences on my Lenten practice are the teenagers who have witnessed to and prayed with me. They have taught me to let go of and say “no” to certain (worldly) ways of thinking about God, life and others, and they have taught me where the real source of joy, peace, love and fulfillment are. They are not in things or in all the activities that I want to do; though they may be good, fun activities can be addictive replacements for the Lord, leading to stress, unhappiness, doubt, and even despair.

The real source is knowing, talking to, and experiencing Jesus and having a daily relationship with him, discerning his will and doing it. And the way is praying (talking to and listening) to the Lord with and within you, and praying to Jesus with others, experiencing him together.

fmp-f1Surrounded by Bullying, Open to the Spirit
The past few years, as I give high school confirmation retreats and work with Franciscan Mystery Play groups around the country, I have experienced a phenomenon in teens: There is this marked interest and openness to Jesus and the Spirit.

I have listened to literally hundreds of teens and their stories, and the common thread is their increasing pain, anger, and dissatisfaction with their lives. Every day, they face the bullying remarks about how ugly they are, what they look or don’t look like, the laughing and sneering at what they’re doing and what they can’t do, what they’re wearing and have and what they don’t have.

What they have taught me is that at the heart of the “bullying crisis” is competition. No longer just in sports, this has spilled over into every aspect of their lives, and the same is true among adults. Bullying is the way to win, to get what you want, to have power, to belong to the “in” crowd, and to feel good that you’re better than everyone else.

Looking for Opportunities, On Fire with the Lord
The vineyard is truly ripe, as Jesus said. Some 150 teens are involved each year in the 11 mystery play groups across the country. Without an inflated number, 99 percent of them are on fire with the Lord. They experience Jesus and have a relationship with him that affects their daily lives.

I am blown away by what these young people say about the Lord openly and freely and their willingness to endure the mocking and marginalizing from their peers because of their faith. And, unlike some programs and teen faith groups, they truly are “catholic,” and not exclusive or proselytizing. They look constantly for opportunities to witness and invite others (teens and adults — even their parents) to join them, to know and grow in faith together.

What they have taught me is how to evangelize teenagers as I watch and listen to them. “Fr. Pompei,” they say to me, “we don’t want to know about Jesus and Church. We want to know and experience Jesus. We want to know that there is another way to think and live besides the competition, bullying, dissatisfaction and boredom.”

Witnessing to Teenagers, Talking to Jesus
Having listened to them, when I give high school confirmation retreats or train Mystery Play groups, I don’t talk about Jesus, but rather witness to them. I read and show videos of teens witnessing about their experiences and relationships with Jesus. Then, I teach them how to pray and share prayer with others and, as the teens have taught me, to “talk to Jesus who is right there with and in them,” to talk to him as they would a best friend.

The key to all of this is not only to witness and teach them how to talk to Jesus, but to pray, talk to, and experience Jesus with and in them — and on a regular basis.

The Franciscan Mystery Players website offers a first-hand view and experience of these teenagers who have left me in the dust with their incredible love for the Lord. I am and have been truly blessed and led by the Lord through them.

— Fr. Francis, guardian of St. Patrick Friary in Buffalo, N.Y., founded the Franciscan Mystery Players with his brother, Fr. Fred Pompei, in 1976. He invites those interested in learning more about the living meditations, which are presented in many churches around the country during Lent, to contact him by email.