Life is a journey with various stages of development, the most difficult and most exciting of which is adolescence. And today we celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary who as a teenager will commit herself to doing God’s will in her life, difficult though it will be.
As we hear in today’s Gospel, she listened! She listened to the angel Gabriel, and she listened to her own heart and then said, “may it be done to me according to your word.”
Last year Pope Francis called for a synod on synodality, a special time of listening to the Holy Spirit and to each other and to our own heart as we journey together, seeking to do God’s will in our own lives. We had parish listening sessions and sessions with specific groups, one of which was the youth of the diocese.
The word “synod” derives from two Greek words: “syn” and “hodos,” which together mean “to go down the road together” or “journey together” without leaving anyone behind. A synodal Church is a listening Church, and it is my hope that our local Church will become more “synodal,” become a better listener, in everything we do.
Those of you who were at Mass last Sunday heard a recorded message from me and hopefully received a booklet in which I respond to the input I received from last year’s discussions. If you didn’t, you can find it on the Diocese of Little Rock website. One of the 11 themes that emerged in this process was the need to speak the truth regarding moral issues where what we believe, and the Bible teaches, is the opposite of what many in our society consider acceptable.
People are confused about what is right and wrong when it comes to sexual morality — adults too, not just teenagers — but you teenagers are especially at risk for making bad decisions based on what the media portrays as normal, but which have very bad consequences. I would be failing in my role as your bishop, shepherd of this flock, if I did not clearly address this issue. So, while this may be awkward, please listen carefully with an open heart and open mind.
When I was your age, while we were not perfect, everyone knew that you shouldn’t have sex until after marriage. No one doubted this, which made the wedding night a really big deal. The marriage was consummated on the wedding night following the exchange of vows. This was an expression of the unitive and procreative purpose of marriage, uniting the couple for life and bringing forth new life.
Any sex prior to that was an immoral misuse of the body and a grave sin. This truth was reinforced in the movies and on TV.
When I was your age, everyone knew that that your physical body determined whether you were male or female — there was no thought of transgenderism. It is true that a very small percentage of babies are born with one kind of birth defect or another, some of which are genetic, and it is true that many of us have things about ourselves that we wish were different or even believe should have been different, but there are in fact only two genders — contrary to what many people want to believe, there is no third gender part way between the other two.
Gender dysphoria is a problem of self-acceptance; it is a problem of discomfort with one’s sexual identity, and it is very painful, so we should be very gentle, kind and compassionate with those who struggle with this kind of distress, but the truth is that we are not merely assigned a gender at birth, we are male or female from before our birth in the DNA of every cell in our body. This is given to us by God.
We don’t get to choose our gender. What we can choose is to be there for each other regardless of anything else, and treat each other with respect, understanding and unconditional acceptance. We all need the support of others.
When I was your age, everyone knew that marriage could only exist between a man and a woman. Earlier I referred to the unitive and procreative aspects of marriage, both of which must be present for a marriage to be valid, and two men or two women lack the physical complementarity necessary for procreation and hence marriage. LGBTQ issues were another one of the 11 major themes to emerge in our synodal discussions, so it is clear that we need to find other ways to support those who experience same-sex attraction, which can be very burdensome, helping people form healthy relationships and protecting them from unjust discrimination. Loneliness is a painful reality, but deep healthy friendships are part of the solution, not marriage.
These are still the truth, even though many in our society don’t want to hear it and propose instead “alternate truths” that seem more tolerant and compassionate, but do not in fact lead to genuine, lasting happiness because they do not correspond to God’s plan for the human person.
You have the disadvantage of being raised in a society where all of this is very confused and where there are no agreed upon limits to sexual behavior, but you do know the limits for your own life and at the same time you clearly desire to be compassionate in the way you treat others — much more so than we were when I was your age, and that counts for a lot.
When I was your age some of my classmates picked on those who were different — and that was wrong. And it was wrong when the rest of us didn’t do anything to stop it. This message may be difficult for some of you to hear, but you who benefit from a Catholic education should know the sometimes-challenging truth in these matters more than anyone else, and so are called not only to live the truth yourself, but also evangelize others, explaining things in a way that is loving, compassionate, and non-judgmental, a difficult task, but a message that people need to hear.
Hence the importance for us to learn from Mary, whose Immaculate Conception we celebrate today. She who as an adolescent committed herself to doing God’s will in her life, difficult and inconvenient though it was. She listened to the angel Gabriel and she listened to her own heart and then said, “may it be done to me according to your word.”
In so doing, she models for us how to be true to the Lord and true to ourselves in the real circumstances in which we find ourselves — in these matters and a large number of other challenges as well.
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily Dec. 8 at Catholic High School and Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock.
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