Sr. Maureen Sullivan
Find a way to help young people fall in love with God, Sister Maureen Sullivan told the Canadian Catholic School Trustees' Association annual conference Oct. 4.
In a talk about the Second Vatican Council and the new evangelization, the Dominican Sister of Hope said John Paul II "wanted the Church to be set on fire."
Sullivan, who has taught theology at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire for the past 25 years, challenged the several hundred trustees, educators and administrators at the Ottawa meeting to "set the schools on fire" with the love of God.
The new evangelization is not about conveying information, but about transformation, about falling in love," she said. "We cannot afford to fail this task."
The world "needs to know the story" of Jesus Christ, she said. "The world is alienated from the mystery that gives it meaning. We might not be in Bora Bora, but you are doing missionary work, right here in the province of Ontario. It is our task to rekindle the fire."
Sullivan contrasted her experience of the pre-Vatican II Church and the sense of excitement and new beginnings she felt as she entered her order in 1965, where she prepared to teach high school in the Bronx borough of New York City.
Growing up, faith was "something for the head" and came from "knowing the answers in the catechism," she said. "It produced people who knew what we believed. Some followed it."
The use of the catechism to educate people in the faith was "thrown out" as a tool after Vatican II, but unfortunately, a substitute tool was not developed to replace it, she said. This has led to a "crisis of religious illiteracy among Roman Catholics."
"Far too many don't know what the Church teaches or why it teaches what it does," she said. She recalls a classroom where students were asked what the Hail Mary was. A student got up and talked about the Hail Mary pass in football. "He didn't know it was a prayer."
There is a difference between faith as a list of propositions and falling in love.
She compared meeting Jesus Christ and falling in love with him with using a dating service and reading all about a prospective romantic partner. "You can print out the characteristics, but you are not in love," she said.
"I knew everything about God, but I was not in love with God," she said. "I think I was afraid of God."
Vatican II called the Church to "remember where you started, to go back to your roots," she said.
Many teachers are unsure of themselves and their faith. "We are meant to be a sign of hope," she said. Students should be "looking at us as joyful, happy creatures" who "have a story to tell" that will "give future generations a reason to hope."
That hope is found in the person of Jesus Christ and a rediscovery of the role of the Holy Spirit, she said.
Jesus' surrender to the Father's will in the Garden of Gethsemane is an example of the personal surrender all of us must make, she said. "Without this personal surrender, our hope will remain sterile."
Sullivan also stressed a belief in the Holy Spirit and his power to transform us. One cannot convey a transforming faith in God "unless I believe he can change me first."
The theological sense of hope involves "a radical openness to God's future" and the belief that "God really does know more than I do," she said.
"Cradle Catholics take many things for granted," she said. "Think of what is in the creed. We act like it's butter on the bread."
Traditional language may not work, she said. Today's young people see no "need to be justified or saved." They think they are special. They also have no concept of a relationship with God that makes demands on them.
How do we preach the Good News "without diluting the meaning of the Gospel?" she asked.
The Church is facing a credibility crisis; religious illiteracy and the influence of a culture that sees teens in "rehab, athletes on steroids" and the desire to "be spiritual but not have the demands of religion."
"New evangelization aims at change, renewal and conversion," she said. One who has not been renewed and converted has not been evangelized.