Several images of highly motivated young men and women passed through my old head this past week.
The first was of John Condon, at his grave outside Ypres, Belgium. John was a fourteen years old soldier, killed in the “Great War.” I spent about fifteen minutes at his grave – alone and with old-man watery eyes. What motivated him? Who inspired him? He lied about his age so he could leave his parents and friends and go to war. What we’re his life dreams?
Later that day, my son, two very good friends visiting from Michigan, and I passed along the graves of tens of thousands and tens of thousands and tens of thousands of young men who gave their lives in WWI fighting the “enemy.” Their inspiration? Many of them, when one reads the notes they left behind, were highly idealistic….Others of course went because they had to.
On our Ypres visit that day, we stood as well at a mass grave — a bit larger than my living room — containing the remains of twenty thousand First World War enemy (German) soldiers. In their own way, they too were once young and idealistic. In another corner of the same cemetery, the somber graves of a group of soldiers, who had been the best and brightest graduates of the University of Berlin. The enemy.
Simultaneous memorials….The same day the four of us were visiting WWI burial sites In Belgium, my friends (high school and college classmates) back in Detroit were gathered for the funeral of our classmate and friend, Father Charlie.
Charlie and I were once idealistic young seminarians, answering our own calls and entering Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary at age fourteen. Answering our own calls took us in different directions. The calls nevertheless were real. About that I have no doubts. The year Charlie was ordained, my wife and I celebrated our engagement. We have now been married close to forty-five years.
Getting home and checking end-of-the-day news on my little iPad, I marvelled at the energy and courage of youthful pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Their leader a charismatic young man about sixteen years old. Who inspired these young people? From whence their courage to protest? What will they do when the protest is over?
The next morning’s newspaper had a major report about another kind of youthful protest. Driven by grievances, resentments, and frustrations, young second generation immigrants in Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Germany who are now signing-up and becoming heartlessly savage and cruel young soldiers in support of the Islamic State. Their inspiration? Who motivated them? Why? All very young men and very young women. Leaving family and friends. For a cause they find noble?
Last night, before going to bed after a long and busy day, I read a few pages from the Gospel According to Mark. I thought about those other young young men and women – in their late teens – who followed Jesus from Nazareth. Today we call them disciples and apostles.
Where do young people today find their inspiration? Who or what motivates them? Who or what animates them to such a degree test they are willing to sacrifice their young lives?
And of course….what is our responsibility – as individuals and as church – in all of this?
Frankly, I have no simple answers…..
May Charlie, old friend and once also young and idealistic, rest in peace.