January 18, 2008

Saved by hope: Young adult Catholics find and spread hope in Christ

Father Rick Nagel, right, chats with, from left, Jill Riley and Brian Buchanan on Jan. 13 at Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood, where Father Nagel serves as associate pastor. Riley and Buchanan work for the Future Farmers of America, an organization that Father Nagel worked for before discerning a call to the priesthood. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Father Rick Nagel, right, chats with, from left, Jill Riley and Brian Buchanan on Jan. 13 at Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood, where Father Nagel serves as associate pastor. Riley and Buchanan work for the Future Farmers of America, an organization that Father Nagel worked for before discerning a call to the priesthood. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Editor’s note: The following is the first of two articles about how Christian hope, which was the subject of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical letter, “Spe Salvi,” plays an important role in the life of Catholics in the archdiocese.

By Sean Gallagher

Hope is all around us.

In a sense, it’s the motivation behind many of the choices, both big and small, that we make each day.

This is as true for the youngest of children as it is for the oldest of adults.

But if there is one group of people who may cling to hope more than any other, it is young adults.

They are on their own at college or just starting a career.

All of the dreams for their adult life that they may have been building up for years—a great job, marriage or other vocations filled with promise—are now on the cusp of being fulfilled.

This was Father Rick Nagel’s view on life about 10 years ago. Then a young adult in his early 30s, he threw himself into jobs for the Indiana State Department of Education and later for the Future Farmers of America.

He had high hopes of building up a career in the nation’s largest high school youth organization that would lead to financial comfort for himself while, at the same time, helping today’s youths.

All of those hopes came crashing down quickly when Father Nagel had two major car accidents and his father died six weeks after being diagnosed with cancer.

“After my dad’s passing, a couple of car accidents, working a lot of hours and really just kind of being tired of seeking things of the world, I began to say, ‘What’s this all about? What am I really here for?’ ”

He sought answers to those questions in prayer.

“It was in that [prayer] that I really began to understand that God desired me to have hope in him,” Father Nagel said. “That returned me to church, to Mass, to the sacraments.”

It also brought him to discern that God was calling him to be a priest. He was ordained last June.

Now Father Nagel is helping young adult Catholics in the archdiocese to integrate the hopes they have for this world with the great hope found in God alone.

Greater and lesser hopes

Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the interrelationship of different kinds of hope in his recent encyclical on Christian hope, “Spe Salvi” (“Saved by Hope”), which was released on Nov. 30.

“Young people can have the hope of a great and fully satisfying love; the hope of a certain position in their profession, or of some success that will prove decisive for the rest of their lives. When these hopes are fulfilled, however, it becomes clear that they were not, in reality, the whole” (#30).

The pope went on to say that, despite scientific advances that make creating a perfect world here and now seem possible, we still will ultimately realize in our heart that “it becomes evident that man has need of a hope that goes further. It becomes clear that only something infinite will suffice for him, something that will always be more than he can ever attain” (#30).

Father Nagel has helped Scott Knust, a junior at the University of Indianapolis, sort out how these competing hopes work in his life.

As a chemistry and physics major, Knust is aware of the hope that some people place in science. At the same time, as a college student, he knows people on campus who seek hope in alcohol, money and pre-marital sexual relationships.

“Those people [need] to hear the hope that there is something that is ultimately satisfying and that that is God,” said Knust, whose home parish is St. John the Baptist in Newburgh, Ind., in the Evansville Diocese.

“[They] need to see people living a satisfying life because of God.”

Stefanie Smith, a junior at Indiana University in Bloomington, has also worked with Father Nagel, especially in campus ministry programs that she has been involved in at the St. Paul Catholic Center near the university.

She sees a real need on her campus for bringing hopes for this world together with hope in Christ.

“I see other people outside of St. Paul’s on campus, and they’re changing their majors constantly,” said Smith, whose home parish is SS. Francis and Clare in Greenwood.

“They have no idea what they’re doing. And on the weekends, they’re constantly with different kinds of people. They really don’t have a set way of life.”

For Smith, finding hope in Christ lends some stability to the changeable nature of college students.

“I may not know what’s going on tomorrow or today but, at least in the long term, I kind of know where I’m going because I have something to hold me up,” she said. “With Christ in people’s lives, you at least have a backbone of some kind.”

Grounding hope in prayer

Facing the fears of an unknown future can sometimes lead young adults to prayer.

It can also happen in the loneliness that comes about when a relationship in which they placed a lot of hope falls apart.

Pope Benedict, in his encyclical, said that prayer is an “essential setting for learning hope” and can strengthen hope at such times (#32).

“When no one listens to me any more, God still listens to me” (#32).

On a recent Sunday, Father Nagel was approached at different times by two young adults who were struggling in relationships. After listening to them, he asked them about their prayer life.

“It seems that nine times out of 10, when I work with young adults in some turmoil or struggle, that the first thing you do is to help them get back to daily prayer,” he said. “It’s in there that we can encourage them and ground them in God’s will.”

Smith said with a laugh that college students come by St. Paul’s frequently for prayer during finals week.

But she said that prayer is important for her and can be a real key for young adults who are struggling with problems.

“I have people in my life who are always there to offer advice,” Smith said. “And sometimes you just want someone to listen. And prayer is definitely a way for that [to happen].”

Knust said that in order to share his hope in Christ with others on campus, he needs to constantly renew it in prayer.

“You’ve got to be focusing on your individual relationship with God before you can really go out and help other people,” he said. “And prayer is where you do that.”

Spreading hope

In his encyclical letter, Pope Benedict said that a common critique of Christianity in the past few centuries is that it leads believers to focus on their own salvation too much. As a result, they don’t give enough help to others in need.

In contrast, the pope said that a believer’s union with Christ must turn him or her outward in love of others since it was solely for love of humanity that Jesus took on human flesh and died for us.

“Being in communion with Jesus Christ draws us into his ‘being for all’; it makes it our own way of being. He commits us to live for others, but only through communion with him does it become possible truly to be there for others. …” (#28).

Knust has embraced being there for others and thinks that, in doing so, he is spreading Christian hope.

He recently did this on a mission trip sponsored by his university by helping improve the housing of the poor in Jonesville, Va., in the Appalachian Mountains.

“Hope doesn’t just sit. It kind of spreads,” Knust said. “Once you have it, you want to spread the hope to others. That’s a lot of what this mission trip is.”

Knust spreads his hope closer to home as well by helping lead Catholic campus ministry programs at his school and simply in his relationships with other students.

“I’ve learned that the more that you live it [Christian hope] in your own life … people will see that naturally,” he said. “God will kind of shine a light on you and people will see it.

“And when things go wrong, people will come to you, just from you being a good friend and a good person of faith. They’ll see in you that something’s different.”

(To read the pope’s new encyclical, log on to www.usccb.org and click on either the English or Spanish links to “Spe Salvi.”) †

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