Several years ago I was very blessed to have the opportunity to do some traveling in South Africa. I traveled in a way that was probably not atypical for other world travelers in their early 20s. I met people who were interested in exploring the same places and seeing the same sites and then we would join together and share the expenses.
One day, for example, another American student and I rented a car with two other young women from the UK. We drove from Cape Town to the Cape Point National Park and encountered some of the most strikingly beautiful scenery that I have ever seen in my life.
One of my most vivid memories from the day was a moment I had with one of these strangers from the UK. We were walking down the path and sharing a bit about who we were. She told me that she was a Christian, and I surprised myself by saying “I thought so! I could tell!” And she said “I can tell you are one too!” Together we marveled at how we could tell. We realized we could only guess. Perhaps it was the presence of the Holy Spirit, perhaps it was our attitudes, perhaps we were who we hoped to be and we were greeting others with the warmth and unconditional love of Christ, perhaps we were radically counter-cultural like the Gospel compelled us to be.
What we also realized is that one of the other women who was traveling with us also proclaimed to be a Christian even though she wasn’t really much different from anybody else. Her obsessions and attitudes didn’t demonstrate that she was in love with the Gospel and Jesus. She didn’t seem to be living a counter-cultural life in any sort of way; she just seemed like a regular person. And, as far as recognizing another Christian by some sort of feeling, we weren’t really sure if she would get what we were talking about. Certainly it wasn’t our job to judge her faith, but we were probably making that mistake.
Faith, after all, is a struggle for most people in our incredibly complex and secular world.
Not too long ago, as you probably know, I was blessed to have another international travel experience. At the World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain, I was crammed into crowds of literally a million young Christians from around the world. These youth were much more attached to the specific Christian classification of Catholicism. No matter the flavor of faith, though, for Christians we’re all rooted in the Love of Jesus and good news of the Gospel. And, what happens in our hearts and prayer should compel us to act, look and live differently from what is common.
At the end of the World Youth Day experience, two million people gathered in a old airfield for an evening of prayer. We hiked there in the boiling heat on Saturday, set up our camps, and tried to stay hydrated and cool (which seemed practically impossible, considering how hot it was).
When I went in search of water that afternoon, I had an interesting observation. A million teens and young adults, no matter how they kneel in prayer or study the Catechism, are still a million teens and young adults. The same temptations hover over good intentions as they would in any other huge crowd of young people. Then, when people are thirsty and there are language barriers and other frustrations, a spirit of compassion, kindness and helpfulness may not be natural. In fact, when things are really tough, people naturally look out for themselves, it seems. In one situation, for example, I had to remind some teenagers to allow an elderly man to get a drink of water.
I realized I had to set aside my idealism for a bit and just pray that everyone would fall in love with Jesus and the Gospel and be the people God made them to be. Is that what it takes for Christians to really be different? Is that what it takes for kindness and concern for others to be our directive?
Despite heat-induced mistakes, the young people still blew me away. Upon my return to the United States I’ve been asked what my favorite part of the trip was. After we survived heat, crushing crowds, and a fierce storm together we shared a moment of extreme reverence. Imagine two-million people kneeling on the ground in silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament and the power, energy, and awe vibrating into the earth. Imagine the peace that moved around the world because of that prayer. Imagine the blessing! That was my favorite moment of the trip.
During that profound moment I learned a great lesson. In addition to kindness and our counter-culturally living, praying makes us different, too.