A couple of years ago, I was asked to speak at the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s Religious Education Congress in Anaheim. This is one of the largest annual gatherings of Catholic catechists and educators in the world. More than 40,000 attended last year. Catholic faithful from all over the world travel to Anaheim for this four-day conference, including a good number of people from Sacramento.
The organizers of the congress had been after me to give a conference in Spanish. I finally decided to do so. I informed the organizers that I would like to do a presentation on “La Sexualidad Humana y el Joven Latino” (Human Sexuality and Latino Youth). I remember the reaction over the telephone when I gave them the title: “Oh!”
I will admit, I chose the topic without much thought as to how I was going to do this. When the day arrived, I did not know what to expect as I walked into the congress. I was not even sure how many people to expect. I remember pushing my way into the vast corridors of the Anaheim Convention Center, jammed with people all searching for their workshop. I got to the information desk for speakers only to find that my workshop was on the other end of the center. Out of breath, I found the room. I also found 500 people waiting to hear the presentation. Yikes!
I began the presentation by presenting some startling statistics about the rates of sexually transmitted diseases among Latino youth. The intention was not to shock the audience, but to show them the prevalence of sexual activity among young adolescents. I then went through a review of the church’s teaching on human sexuality. Up to this point, my presentation offered few surprises.
I then introduced a small group of young adults from the local parish youth groups. They role-played a conversation among teenagers about what their parents said or – more accurately – did not say about sexuality. A stunned silence held the room as teachers, catechists and parents listened to the young people discuss the unmentionable: “sex.” The gist of the miniature drama was how little guidance they had received and how much they relied on one another for information. This was admittedly a rehearsed improvisation of adolescent chatter, but not too far from the truth. One of the youths in the group was a young single mother who had become pregnant as a teenager.
Once they had finished, there was an opportunity for questions. What followed surprised me. With few exceptions, the questions were not directed at me but to the young people. Clearly, many of the adults in the room had never had the opportunity to discuss sexuality with young people, most especially their own.
The team I had assembled were dedicated young Catholics. They had benefited from opportunities to learn about their faith. Just as important, they all were very familiar with the world in which their young contemporaries lived. What they shared was a revelation for the adults in the room, but what made the atmosphere so electric was the rupture of a silence about an issue so vital to the welfare of young people and their families.
As I listened to the questions and comments the adults put forward, it was clear to me they were using the young people as proxies for the conversation they could have, should have had with their own children. There was a wide-ranging conversation, but the essential theme of the young people’s responses to the adults in the room was: “Talk to us. We may act like we are not listening but we are. Talk to us. What you say matters to us.”
Watching this cathartic dynamic in the room, I finally said to the group, “El silencio nos prejudica” (The silence hurts us). St. Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (I Cor. 9.16) With what I heard and saw that morning, we can surely say, “Woe to our children if we do not teach them the beauty and truth of the gospel regarding human sexuality!”
Recently I was discussing with a local journalist the healthy preventive value of parents speaking to their children about sexuality. This individual quickly discounted my point saying, “I believe that Planned Parenthood would probably do a better job than me.” I was stunned to hear such an abdication of parental responsibility. Whether or not one agrees with this naïve notion, to remain silent is to leave a vacuum that will be filled by Planned Parenthood or other intrusive social voices hoping to get to the ears and minds of young people.
Most of the audience to whom I spoke in Anaheim were immigrants. Their children were often more at home in American culture than they were. As a consequence, they were often hesitant, uncertain about sharing their own faith traditions with their children. The parents’ timid silence denied their families a powerful resource. Yet, just raising the subject of sexuality with them, would have made such a difference.
This is not an issue only for immigrants. Many, if not most, parents are hesitant to break the silence. We should all consider whether the failure to do so is an unfortunate sin of omission. The words of those young people should encourage all of us: “Talk to us. We are listening.”
Reprinted with permission from the July-August issue of The Catholic Herald, official magazine for the diocese of Sacramento.