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Marist Bulletin - Number 77


Brother Onorino Rota speaks of our mission to the youth of today

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Br. Lluís Serra

Brother Onorino Rota, 56, was born in Capizzone, Bergamo, Italy. He majored in Education, and has spent much of his life working in formation programs and youth ministry. He was on the team that organized the canonization of St. Marcellin, and more recently served as a delegate to the 20th General Chapter. At the present time, he is Provincial of our Italian Province.

Aren’t you a bit up in years to be involved in the world of young people?
“Saints and heroes do not need to talk, their life is a message, their witness a summons” – that’s what a French author wrote – and looked at from that angle, every one of us, by his or her lifestyle, composure, way of dealing with problems and work, has a positive or negative impact on the lives of those around us. I think that you can only help someone else when you’ve brought your own life into harmony, and the help you give your neighbor is an act of altruistic love. It takes many years to achieve this inner peace and harmony – and no one can guarantee that my 56 years are enough! More than years, however, you need “wisdom” – the biblical kind – which you learn through living a committed and dedicated life. There’s a time when you teach what you know, and another when you teach who you are. I like to be involved with young people without pontificating – I simply like being a witness! I must confess that I live in dread of those who think that being a teacher for young people means acting like a “juvenile,” believing these youth are impressed because a teacher speaks their lingo, sings their songs, tries to keep up with their fads...

For young people, there’s no middle ground – they tend to be either harsh critics or fiercely loyal partisans. What is your thinking about the realities and trials that young people are experiencing today?
In 1095 Peter the Hermit, an apostle of the first crusade, described young people this way: “The world is going through stormy times. Young people today don’t care about anyone but themselves. They have no respect for their parents and elders anymore. They can’t stand any kind of restraint and they talk as if they know everything. What seems wise to us they look upon as stupid. Girls, for their part, are insanely silly, empty-headed, and immodest – they show no class at all in the way they talk, dress, and behave.” Now that’s a description from a thousand years ago! However, another text, from two thousand years ago, relates that while a judge at a public trial was writing something on the ground, everyone in the crowd began to drift away, beginning with the eldest. (Jn 8, 6) We have a craving to critique young people, have them fill out questionnaires, analyze them... Things get interesting however when young people and adults come face to face, because lots of times young people are just like adults, except that they don’t know how to be fakers. They don’t act hypocritically, as adults can do – they haven’t mastered that technique yet. However, normally, adults don’t deal with young people in the abstract, rather with individual young men and women, and Marcellin has shown me that I need to love them before putting labels on them.

How complex is the youth phenomenon at the international level.
It’s not just complex – it’s constantly evolving. Some centers carry on research for years. By the time all the data has been analyzed, young people have already changed. There are also marked differences between countries, although the mass media, youth tourism, and other factors are probably bringing about greater uniformity. A recent CENSIS study of Italian youth has pegged them as a generation “without parents or teachers,” cut off from the past and with no “roadmaps” for the future – they’re journeying through life without a compass. These young men and women are driven by feelings and emotions, belong to groups (including religious ones) not customarily a part of their lives. Even so, they seek out adults with “backbone” to be able to journey on. It seems to me they’re asking us for what we owe them.

In previous cultures elders used rites of passage to initiate the young to the adult world. How do you see yourself introducing young people to the meaning of life?
Father Mazzi, who works with drug addicts, asks himself this question: “How come youngsters who are healthy, good-looking, creative, and intelligent get hooked on garbage to feel good about themselves? If we adults are incapable of filling the hearts of our young people with the best that life has to offer – thoughtfulness, compassion, and a sense of wonder – what kind of adults are we? Why do we boast that we’re adults?” I think this hits the nail on the head. As I mentioned before, the main source of what we teach is who we are – our overall behavior, not just what we say. Our ability to listen, to give a firm handshake, smile, make a phone call... are ways that say, “You are important to me!” We have to find times and places to converse, “waste time,” with young people, learn how to tune in to their wavelength. If we don’t, we won’t communicate at all. A few days ago, I attended a talk by a young layman who specializes in “street ministry.” Fantastic! Where did he learn all that? The same place Marcellin did when he visited the teenager Montagne. If our hearts are on fire with an ideal, wisdom is measured by our boldness. Youth need people who believe in values and aren’t afraid to put their money where their mouth is by putting their values into practice. The ministry of talk-talk-talk went out-of-date quite a long time ago.

The Chapter Message calls on both brothers and lay Marists to go forward together in our mission and work with children and young people. How can we accomplish this task?
When I speak with parents, I often tell them about a tragedy that unfolded at a train station in Rome. A young woman, 20 years old, took her own life in a public washroom. She left her parents a note, written with her own blood: “You gave me some useful things and stuff I could have done without, but you never gave me what I needed most.” I’m convinced that the situation of young people in many countries is a tragic one. They need what’s essential, a reason to live. Faced with such a crisis, it would be disastrous if we didn’t come together to give hope, provide reasons for living, and testify to the beauty of creation and the belief that life is worth living... How can we accomplish this mission? It’s not easy to answer this question in a few words, but my first reaction is that includes a pointless “how”. This mission is ours to accomplish, whatever the cost – we can’t afford to waste time talking on and on about the “how”. The multimedia presentation at the Hermitage comes to mind. While the faces of a multitude of boys and girls from every country are being shown, you hear and read the cry of Marcellin: “I cannot see a child without being eager to tell him that God loves him.” What do you think? – Is this message aimed solely at us Marist brothers? Must we hold meetings to figure out by whom and how it ought to be accomplished?

How do you talk about God with today’s youth?
Young people, especially today, prefer caring involvement to abstract theories. In the Bible, God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob... It seems to me that when we speak about God with young people, John’s approach is essential: “We proclaim to you what we have seen and touched with our hands.” This is precisely what the 20th General Chapter is asking of us: to position Jesus front and center in our lives. It also seems to me that the approach taken by the European Conference on Vocations is very much on the mark when affirming that we only exercise our ministry through spreading the word. Yes, God communicates himself only when the contents of a robust heart overflow. If handing on the faith means nothing more than remembering the past or showcasing lists of quaint traditions, (which someone might have forgotten to dust off), then no communication will take place. Youth have the right to breathe a vibrant, durable faith... a flesh-and-blood faith. Young people today learn from countless cultural icons, and there’s a vast number of unknown gods they have yet to discover. How can we put them in touch with the true Word of life? Jesus used a simple method: Come and see!

In practical ways, how would you involve Marist educators in the world of the young, even in areas where we haven’t been before?
Marcellin wanted us to spend our time among children and be an important influence in their lives. Our Constitutions (Article 21) ask us to be living signs of God our Father’s tenderness for them. The school is certainly a privileged place where such an aim can be realized, but it’s not the only one. However, I’d prefer not to narrow things down to a particular place or a job that each of us can pursue. Rather I think it’s a question of the heart, having the spirit of an apostle, and being passionate about education. When we stand in front of a class, we role-play, we have a job to do, we follow a curriculum, and that makes life a little easier for us – it simplifies things. But when I look at the wealth and variety of gifts of those who are dedicated to our Marist educational mission, I’m convinced that getting involved in a wider variety of ministries – I’m thinking particularly of Italy – would have the beneficial effect of maximizing the talents that the Lord has given to each one of us, would help us come up with innovative responses, and distinguish our place in school settings – the way we teach and inspire, the kind of school we run, how we face challenges arising from lengthening the time of compulsory education…. Some of us remember the slogan that young people made the most of during the protests in 1968: “Empower imagination!” It seems to me we ought to hang on to that slogan, even though it might be hard to translate into practice.

In your view, what are the challenges facing us as Marists in the schools?
The 20th General Chapter was just about unanimous in ratifying In the Footsteps of Marcellin, the document describing our Marist educational mission. It’s filled with many clear guidelines. In Italy our Education Commission has printed a small booklet intended for parents and students, stating that our schools aim to: educate for life; proclaim the Gospel in the way that Mary did; offer our presence and attentive listening; choose a style of education based on simplicity, family spirit, and a love of work; and open up opportunities for young people to become involved in the field of solidarity. I see these as the most significant features for those of us promoting “schools that aren’t just schools,” and, thus, “schools that make a difference” and offer a straightforward educational program.

How can we actualize our determination to favor the poorest and most marginalized of children and young people?
People have made themselves rich off the poor. It’s a trendy thing to do. I still haven’t come across a religious institute that has made working for the rich one of its priorities. Furthermore, they all choose, make a deliberate decision to work on behalf of the poor. We talk a lot about the poor. Sometimes we talk with the poor. But it’s hard for us to speak like the poor or be the voice of the poor. I think it’s fair to say that once in a while, we even make believe we’re poor. In Italy we are involved almost exclusively in schools, and the laws regulating this type of enterprise have led to our creating private schools beyond the reach of the poor. I’m convinced that we have done top-notch work thanks to the extraordinary dedication of the brothers. But I can’t help but be struck by the provocative words that Brother Basilio Rueda addressed to us: “It may happen that a Province is involved in work that is not in line with the charism of the Institute, but it would be absolutely inadmissible if most of its undertakings failed to be in accord with this charism.” Likewise, Brother Benito Arbués reminded us that our works must satisfy four requirements: 1) education, 2) Christian education, 3) the world of young people, and 4) especially the most abandoned young people. If one of those requirements is not met, then a basic ingredient is missing.

What do young people expect of us?
You’d have to ask them. I’m convinced that they’re asking us for that “soul food” that only someone who lives his or her own faith in a profound way can offer. Young people need solid reasons for believing in life and committing themselves to building up the culture of life for others, in addition to themselves. Everything else they can find elsewhere, higher in quality than anything we have to offer. But we are the only ones who can provide them with what’s essential. This, in my opinion, is where we are interacting with the future.

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