HOMILY FOR THE NOVENA MASS AT CARMEL, 9 July 2019
“Christus Vivit: Challenges of the Youth” (Gen 32:23-33 & Mat 9:32-38)
I wish to start by thanking our dear Carmelite sisters for including the CBCP in their prayers these past few days. We have just finished our whole week of retreat and plenary assembly. Our retreats are usually given by old and seasoned theologians and spiritual masters. In this Year dedicated to Young People, our retreat was facilitated by young people and the Episcopal Commission on Youth Ministry. The topic was the same as the theme for our novena Masses for Our Lady of Carmel, CHRISTUS VIVIT, the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis for all young people of the world, “Christ is Alive.”
On the second day of our retreat, the facilitators asked the bishops to break into little groups in order to interact with youth leaders according to specific topics. Some bishops chose the topic of “Youth and the Environment”; others chose “Youth and Politics”. Still others, “Youth Family Life” and around four other choices. I chose the topic “Youth and Mental Health”.
Our group on “Youth and Mental Health” began its session with the life-testimony of a 24-year old youth leader who told us his story about his struggles with depression. He shared about a series of failures in school, failure in some subjects and failure to graduate. His emotional disposition had also affected his relationship with his family and his girlfriend. So he found himself withdrawing into isolation and silently brooding over the mess that he felt he had made of his life. He lost his appettite, could not sleep, and was spending most of his days locked up in his room, killing time before his computer, scrolling through his newsfeed on FB. One day, he felt he could not go on anymore so he decided the only way out was to commit suicide. And so he planned it out; he kept a time table of things he needed to accomplish before ending his life.
He closed all his social media accounts and started disposing his personal things. Then he started writing a suicide note to his family and friends. After writing his letter, just when he was about to carry out his plan he noticed that he had several missed calls on his cell phone. There was also one long text message sent to him by a student who was asking why he did not show up for his scheduled appointment with her. She was begging him for another schedule. He realized he had totally forgotten that he had promised this girl that he would help her with her thesis research project, so he decided to call her up. She was crying over the phone and was desperate, worried that, if she did not finish her thesis work, she would not be able to graduate. And so he postponed his suicide plan to help this girl. He felt good later that he was able to help her finish her thesis.
Just when he was going to resume his secret plan, he got a call again from a parish youth ministry volunteer asking for his help for an urgent parish activity. He had actually resigned already from the parish youth ministry but he found himself unable to say no to the request so he postponed his plan again. After a very tiring but successful parish event, he came home and went to bed and, for the first time, had a long and restful sleep. He woke up refreshed and was happy to see a freshly cooked meal at table, with a note from his mother, “Anak, please don’t forget to eat even if you’re busy.” He smiled and ate a good meal and took a shower afterwards. He realized only later, as the days passed, that he had forgotten his suicide plans. He started returning to his habit of visiting the Blessed Sacrament at their parish Adoration Chapel and attending the evening Mass again. He found himself busy, retook his failed subjects, graduated, found a good job, and became more involved in the parish and met new friends.
Today’s readings remind me of that young man. He was like the man in the Gospel who was mute because he was posssessed by an evil spirit, until he met Jesus and was liberated and was enabled to speak again. He was like Jacob who was struggling with his fear of crossing paths again withhis brother Esau, whom he had cheated of his birth right. Alone and in the dark, Jacob found himself wrestling with a stranger. But before the break of dawn, he prevailed upon his contender and received the blessing of a new name. After that struggle he was no longer the same Jacob as before; he became Israel. He was to be known as the man who wrestled with God and succeeded.
Let me say, however, that not all young people who struggle with all kinds of spirits inside them are able to prevail, though. Some of them get defeated.
Just two months ago, I felt deeply disturbed when I saw the viral video of a 33-year old good-looking and successful young man named Seph Ubalde. He videotaped himself sharing about his struggles with depression. Towards the end of his story, he was crying and drinking something, as if to be able to swallow his misery. He ended his story by saying, “That’s all, folks. See you on the other side.” After doing that video and uploading it on youtube, he drowned himself in the bathtub of his hotel room. During his wake, his parents did not even know that their son’s goodbye video was already going viral on FB.
Imagine how many young people today are like that young man, living a very stressful life, feeling alone and dejected. Some of them are victims of trauma and abuse, others fall into all forms of addiction, like alcohol, gambling, pornography and drugs, in order to be able to cope. They are not bad people; they are suffering from mental health issues and are not even aware of it. Good thing if, like the young man we heard at our CBCP retreat, they could find friends, family, or fellow young people who could be there for them just in the nick of time, to listen to them, to accompany them, to help pull them out of the pit of depression.
In the diocese of Kalookan, two weeks ago, we organized, for the first time, a different kind of medical mission. We called it a Mental Health Forum. We did not invite regular parishioners. We opened it to all young people out there in the social media who might be struggling with depression. I thought we would be lucky to have fifty participants. To my surprise, we had more than five hundred applicants, we even had to turn down some because we could not accommodate all of them. In the morning we had lectures creatively given by psychiatrists on the topics of stress and trauma, depression, addiction and suicide. We had to extend the open forum until 1pm to be able to allow the participants to ask questions and to interact with the psychiatrists. In the afternoon they broke into groups to experience various forms of therapy: theater workshop, art therapy, massage, meditation, music jamming, poetry reading, etc.
At the Synod on the Youth, we were told that one of the interventions that touched Pope Francis was the story of a young man from Samoan Islands. He compared the Church to a boat, which the elderly keep on course by interpreting the position of the stars, while the young people keep rowing. Let me end this homily now by quoting what Pope Francis wrote in “Christus Vivit”. He said,
“Let us steer clear of young people who think that adults represent a meaningless past and those adults who always think they know how young people should act. Instead, let us climb aboard the same boat and together, let us seek a better world, with the constantly renewed momentum assisted by the Holy Spirit.”