by Fr. Dave Kelly, C.PP.S., Director PBMR
There has always been a tension between those in authority and those who are subject to authority. Both leadership and those whose office carries the weight of authority need to understand that there is a difference between being authoritarian and having authority. Authoritarian is the wielding of power, but true authority comes through respect, love and relationship.
We took some youth on an outing and as we were preparing, one of the kids asked whether I was going. Another of the youth responded quickly, “You know Fr. Kelly is going—going with us savages.” Only a few days prior, I had given a talk on the lack of self-esteem and self-worth of young people who grow up in the midst of violence, so that word savage did not escape me.
Too many young people grow up feeling little self-worth. But what that young man was referring to was that when we go with them on these outings, they tend to act differently—their best selves. For this young man, because of my relationship with him, because I have been there for him when he needed support, I had a level of authority. Frankly, many of us at the PB Center have authority, not because we have any power, but because we are consistently present in their lives. For many youth, adult relationships are fragile and fleeting. Couple that with adults thinking that authority is power-based—when in reality it is relationship-based—we find youth who are seen as less respectful and less connected.
Authority also demands a sense of humility, that we set aside our need for things to go our way or according to our plans. There is humility in listening to the story of another. It is the act of valuing that person so much so that you are willing to set aside your own needs and desires in honor of them.
Carmen lost her son to gun violence. He died on her front porch as he was trying to come home. In her grief she questioned God. She struggled for a long time with trying to reconcile her feelings of anger and hate with her Catholic faith that teaches reconciliation and forgiveness. But eventually, as she stood before God with all her questions and emotions, she came to know his love. Because her deep anger could not remain “in-sync” with God’s love, she made the decision to allow God’s love in. It demanded that she surrender her pain to God, finding refuge in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. That surrender was an act of humility. Her journey is not over, nor is her pain something of the past. Her journey, however, is not done alone. She has found that in her faith, in her relationship with Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, God is present in a very real way. Frankly, the celebration of the Eucharist has taken on a new and profound meaning her life.
The Prodigal Son story in Luke’s gospel has long been a story of reconciliation. The father embraces his sinful son upon his return. But the father in the story of the Prodigal Son had to embrace a humility in order to place the needs of his returning son before his own. How many of his neighbors no doubt said, “This old man allows his son to run all over him.” The older son, also, rebukes his father for his act of forgiveness. To forgive one who has done you great harm demands humility; to recognize them as a creation of God, even as you carry the pain of their action, demands a faith that embraces that seeming contradiction.
Adults often speak of the “younger” generation as being rebellious or disrespectful. There has always been a challenge for older adults to understand the ways of the youth. But today, as always, youth are in need of, and often times are looking for, authority in their lives. But that authority cannot be based on power or position, it has to be based on relationship.
For the past 35 years, I have worked among a population of young people who have lived and acted outside the norms of society. They have often been confronted by authority, but too often what they needed the most was an authority that recognizes them as worthwhile, that seeks to be in relationship with them. What we learn in the sacred scriptures is that the authority of God comes through the relationship. God embraces us with a father’s love and calls us to be our best selves.