The teenagers were a little uneasy and apprehensive. They had been working together for a year on an artistic (song, dance and spoken word) rendering of Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of love, justice and peace. Now they had been asked to work with a group of middle-schoolers who were part of the local juvenile court’s system because of consistent truancy.

The older teens didn’t know what they would be facing, who these younger kids were, or how they could possibly work together. An adult, who was videotaping the whole project,  approached one of the older teens and asked him why he was doing this: “Why are you spending your time working with kids whom many people have given up on, kids who don’t go to school, who have opted for the streets.” The teen looked at her, shrugged slightly, and said, “Because it’s not all about me.”

That teenager likely didn’t know it, but he was articulating the basic principle of Catholic social teaching — working for the common good. To be a Christian means that it’s not all about us. We have to be concerned about others; and, more than that, we have to act on behalf of others.

One of the basic tents of Catholic social teaching is “participation and community.” That’s what these teenagers were doing — they were encouraging younger students to participate, and they were being community. Their example is one that may or may not be possible for us and our children. As we begin our Lenten journey, there is no end to the ways in which we can lift up participation and community in our families, our classrooms, our youth groups, all of our activities with young people. For example:

  •  Listening to young people, making sure everyone has a voice.
  •  Encouraging young people to participate by affirming them, by telling them concretely how wonderful they are and how much we appreciate them.
  • Setting up ways for them to participate in decisions about things that impact their lives. (Family meetings are wonderful opportunities to do this.)
  • Discussing with them what is going on in the world and what they can do to affect the lives of others. Certainly, praying for people who are suffering and struggling is one important action. Letter-writing to elected officials and to groups working in the midst of these struggles is another way.
  • Setting up opportunities for family service times — in a structured activity (working at a food bank) or in a spontaneous activity (a neighbor who needs help with yard work).
  • Telling stories of people, famous and ordinary, who lived their lives for others.
  • Letting our homes become centers of hospitality — for our children’s friends, for someone who needs a cup of coffee and a hug, or perhaps for someone who needs a place to stay.

All of these are ways of living community and inviting our young people to participate. And Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39).