I have been in mission for about seven years in Fuenlabarada, near Madrid, where I arrived when I was still a deacon. Now, beyond helping out at our parish, I am the chaplain and a religion teacher at a school with about eight hundred students.
When parishioners hear me speak about my work at school, since I teach middle- and high-school kids, I often hear them say, “You poor thing! That’s the most difficult age”, or, “It must be difficult with all those adolescents.” Actually, my experience is different. I am beyond happy to spend so much time with the kids and to be able to educate them, or at least to try.
The observations made about adolescents are almost always true: they do their own thing, are instinctive, reactive, and many have addictions of various types. But they also have a quality that tends to be reduced with age: they are transparent. One understands easily if they are happy or not. When they are passionate about something, they don’t hold back but dedicate time and energy without keeping anything in reserve. I’ll give some examples by telling about some of my students, using invented names for discretion.
Teaching religion, it is common to touch on burning issues and the deep questions of the kids’ lives. When it happens, they begin to ask lots of questions. They are golden moments for which I always try to leave space.
Two years ago, I was giving a lesson on the religious sense. We were still at the height of the pandemic, but thankfully I was able to teach in person. I had invited my high-school sophomores to present a movie, chosen by them, to their classmates so that some of the themes discussed in class would emerge. At the end of the period, a boy named Juan came up to me and confessed that he had been struck by the lesson. Above all, he said that watching a movie in that way was more beautiful and that he would like to do it again. What’s more, he added acutely, if this way of looking at things can be applied to a movie, it could be used for any other thing. Another classmate who was listening to us inserted herself into the conversation saying that she, too, would like to continue. I invited them to join us one afternoon after class and to do the same thing bringing with them a song that was meaningful for them. The chosen song was Angel Down by Lady Gaga, which begins with these lyrics: “I confess I am lost / In the age of the social / On our knees, take a test / To be lovin’ and grateful.” They explained to me that they fully identify with the song: they desire a place in which they can be themselves. Where they can love one another authentically, where they can stay without the fear of being judged, where they can say what’s on their minds without fear. I observed to them that it was exactly what was happening in that moment: weren’t they opening up, talking to each other freely, without fear of being judged?
This moment coincided with one of my desires, to be able to accompany these kids to know Christ, through their own desire. I think it’s important that this happens: without this meeting of desires, we risk becoming too inflexible and artificial in the educational proposal.
We then decided to see each other again and we called our small group Para y mira, “Stop and look.” Another student and a teacher joined immediately. The idea was to meet every week and freely bring with us everything that was important to us during the week: a page from a book, an article, a song, a lesson at school, a conversation with a friend… anything as long as we are ready to share it and look at it seriously. More or less, we started a radius. Little by little, without any marketing strategy or advertising, but only by word-of-mouth, the radius grew to include about fifty kids and a handful of adults.
One day, I see Silvia in the cafeteria fiddling with her food without eating. She seems very sad, so I go up to her and sit at her table to have lunch with her. She says that she is fed up. She seems to be nearly exhausted because she doesn’t understand the point of studying so much in order to go to college, work, start a family, retire, and finally die. After lunch, I talk about it with the other teachers and all of them tell me that the girl has been carrying this problem with her for a long time.
I asked myself what goes on in the heart of a sixteen-year-old girl with friends, a family, who does well in school to be so disappointed with life. Then I understood that her discomfort is actually the expression of the greatness of her heart, and the hearts of all the kids. Even if they don’t lack anything, they often don’t have a horizon, a criteria with which they can put all the pieces of their life in order. The criteria that they look for, however, can’t simply be explained. It seems to me that any type of speech – a beautiful text that I could give them, an excellent piece of advice – is not what they need in the first place. What they need is a home, a place that can help them rediscover their certainty, and a communion to which they can belong. I invited her to the radius and from that day she hasn’t missed a single one. Every once in a while, when we bump into each other in the hallway, she even smiles. Then I tell her, “You see, life doesn’t suck.” “Stop it!,” she always answers. But she laughs!
Rocio arrived at my school this year. One day, he wrote me a letter that helped me to better understand how important it is to have a place, a companionship that educates us.
Often, when my biggest desires are fulfilled, I’m happy at the beginning but then a feeling of dissatisfaction remains with me, as if I had need of something more. And the bigger the desire, the more I feel that something is missing. Before coming here, for example, I didn’t have what I wanted most – a great and true friendship – and I settled for small things. Now I see that with the friendships that I have, I’m not satisfied with any old thing. When one looks for small or only material things, it’s easy to believe that it’s not possible to be truly happy. But if you meet what I’ve met, then you begin to understand that your heart will never rest until it finds that which is infinitely great. I ask myself: why are we made this way? It’s annoying to know that I can’t fully enjoy the small things because they refer us to that which is great.
Discovering that not just anything is adequate for a beautiful and great life is a fundamental step in growing up. On the other hand, this life is possible only if one has in front of him people who are certain, that know where to go, otherwise our desires turn into tyrannies and can drag us towards that which destroys life instead of building it.
Lucas is a character. He’s the typical boy that always tries to be noticed and acts like a clown. Over time, he has become a victim of that mask that he has made for himself and everyone treats him as a fool.
For four years now, to end the school year, we have organized a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. It’s a demanding proposal: 170km in six days, carrying your backpack on your shoulders, waking up early, silence, prayer, singing, daily Mass. It also offers many opportunities to be simple, to help each other when someone is tired, or, more simply, when someone doesn’t know how to do the laundry. It happens often…
One day, while walking, Lucas developed several large blisters that made the journey particularly painful for him. We took turns carrying his backpack and during the breaks helped him to take care of his feet. That afternoon, we celebrated the Mass as usual and Lucas, who never goes to church, asked if during the Prayer of the Faithful it would also be possible to give thanks. After the Mass, we talked about how the day had gone and if we had discovered something new. He said that it seemed like he didn’t understand life: how was it possible that there were people who cared for him so much? He confessed to us that he was thinking that maybe Jesus exists after all because he sees how Christians live. He even said that the pilgrimage is a lot like how life should be: a group of friends who walk together towards a destination. That might have been the only time that I heard Lucas say something that wasn’t completely stupid: a new consciousness had entered him. Now I understand better what it means to say that to educate is to introduce someone to the totality of reality. It means helping to discover that a good Father exists, that there is a Destiny towards which we are walking and that makes itself close to us precisely because there is a companionship that He wanted to build. In this way, every step of the journey already has the taste of the destination.
The experience of these years has helped me understand many things about the young people that we meet today in the schools, at least in Spain where I live. The kids often are afraid, are full of uncertainties about themselves (because of the image that others have of them or their own identity) and the future, whether because they don’t have the hope of meeting something which makes life worth living and that lasts forever, or because they don’t have a clear horizon in life.
The fear and uncertainty that often accompany young people come above all from the fact that they don’t have anyone who can help them have a balanced relationship with reality. I’ll conclude quoting one last time a student that one day wrote to me:
I met the Lord. With Him everything is made new: even studying is more attractive. One time at the radius, we commented on this phrase: “Nothing exists that makes man surrender more than feeling himself discovered and completely understood at the same time.” This is becoming clear for me in the companionship of some good friends. Let’s face it: they’re not normal, but with them I rediscover His tenderness and His embrace. I ask myself: “Why me? Why did we receive this gift?”
When I see a kid of our times who rediscovers enthusiasm and gratitude for life, for his life, and begins to act so that others can know the source of this gratitude, then I understand that education is possible.
Stefano Motta with some young people.