Editor’s note: This homily was preached for the memorial of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, June 21, 2021, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City.
Our saint of the day, Aloysius Gonzaga, lived in the sixteenth century and came from nobility on both the Italian and Spanish sides of his family. He renounced his earthly patrimony to enter the Jesuits, where St. Charles Borromeo became his spiritual director. He died at the tender age of twenty-three as a result of caring for the sick during the pandemic of his era. He is most lauded, however, for his burning zeal for evangelical chastity and is presented in that regard particularly for youth.
I have spent my entire priestly life in the service of the apostolate of Catholic education, which means I should know a thing or two about young people and their relationship with the virtue of chastity – or not. St. Paul teaches us that sins against the sixth and ninth commandments are always grievous because they sully our bodies, which have become temples of the Holy Spirit through Baptism (see 1 Cor 6:19). St. Thomas Aquinas agrees with him but does go on to say that the gravity of such sins can be mitigated because of the force of passion or habit. I don’t think that is information to be shared with hormone-raging teens, however.
Sexual sins are especially problematic for teens for a variety of reasons. Firstly, my experience informs me that the initial impulse to move away from a sacramental life accompanies the first sexual tryst. It’s a kind of perverted “holy” instinct, not unlike St. Peter’s “depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Lk 5:8). In reality, it is the Devil’s blackmail, by which he convinces the young person that he has committed an unpardonable sin and is thus kept away from the very means of grace, leading to re-integration.
Then there is a simple fact of life: Although youngsters may be able to perform physically, they are not prepared for the psychological consequences of either controlling behaviors of partners or break-ups. How many teen suicides are the direct result of a relationship-gone-bad? How many murders of teens are the result of a relationship-gone-bad? Surveys tell us that the average American kid has his or her first sexual encounter around the age of thirteen. How does that happen?
It happens, largely due to the hyper-sexualization of all society for more than fifty years. Let me give you but five examples – out of hundreds I could offer – of what I mean.
• Visiting a family’s home for dinner many years ago, the kindergarten boy spilled the beans by informing me that because a priest is so important, his father told him to make sure that the Playboy magazines in the living room were appropriately stashed away.
• One of my students – a sophomore in high school – bewailed the fact that her mother didn’t trust her. When I asked her how she knew that, she replied: “Last year, she brought me to the doctor for a prescription for The Pill.”
• An 82-year-old woman, happily married for sixty years in mutual fidelity with her husband confessed that she had just committed adultery. Why? “Because when my grand-daughter tells me about all of her sexual flings, I realize how much I have missed out on!”
• On an airport shuttle, a family got on. The teen-age boy was very sullen. To cheer him up, his father said, “Hey, listen, kid. There are gonna be so many babes down in Miami, we probably won’t see you for a week.” Espying me, the old man said, “Ya know, Padre, ya gotta give kids today some incentive to take a family trip.”
• A mother approached me, greatly concerned that her daughter was lesbian; she wanted to bring her to a psychiatrist. “What would make you think that?” “She’s the only girl in her class who doesn’t have a steady boyfriend.” “Well, I’d be thrilled about that. How old is she?” “She’s in third grade!” “Oh, I think psychiatric treatment is indicated – for you!”
That’s the air young people breathe – toxic air provided by the entire environment and, unfortunately, also by many who ought to know better. And how could I neglect to mention the devilish work done by the government schools, which are now teaching first-graders in this City how to masturbate; which, for years, have taught fifth- and sixth-graders how to use a condom; which have been bringing girls to Planned Parenthood for contraceptives and abortions for decades; which are asking the littlest among us for their gender-identity. This is all sick business, but it is big business because it all redounds to the pockets of the purveyors of this filth. If you want a description of child abuse, this is it.
So, besides wringing one’s hands, what can be done?
Firstly, if your children or grandchildren are in the so-called “public” schools, get them out of those godless dens of iniquity as fast as you can. Having them there is endangering their immortal souls.
Secondly, it is necessary to create and maintain a truly Catholic home environment. In what does that consist?
• Render healthy parental example of living one’s sexuality peacefully and according to the divine plan;
• Allow no lewd and lascivious conversation (if sexuality is treated like a joke, it will be perceived as something casual or merely for personal entertainment);
• Insist on modesty of dress for boys and girls alike;
• Keep at bay the scourge and plague of pornography; we are told it is now the number one cause of divorce in this country. It is a bottomless pit, very easy to fall into and nearly impossible to emerge from.
• Provide age-appropriate forms of education in human sexuality, relying on some of the fine programs based on the “theology of the body” of St. John Paul II;
• Do not permit dating; in the Catholic scheme of things, the only purpose of dating is to find a marriage partner. Beyond that, dating is a great distraction, let alone a serious temptation.
Simply put: It is essential to situate sexuality within a proper human and Christian perspective. Sexualizing children destroys their innocence, morally speaking, and it destroys their human development, psychologically speaking. They don’t naturally and normally think in those terms. All too often, it is adults projecting their personal psycho-sexual problems onto young people.
Finally, there is a very practical consideration. If the statistics are accurate about teen dalliances in sexual activity – and there is no reason to doubt their accuracy – and if it is also true that the average American now marries (if he or she ever marries) around the age of 31, how can one expect such a person who has lived a disordered sexuality for nearly twenty years to settle down into a faithful, lifelong, monogamous union? Grace builds on nature, and when the nature is so badly compromised, it is almost impossible for grace to do its part.
No, unchastity, like materialism, is not fertile soil for marriage, nor for vocations to either the priesthood or religious. We reap what we sow.
While we are focused on the importance of youthful chastity, let us not forget its importance for every believer, many of whom committed youthful offenses against chastity or perhaps still struggle with living that virtue: the single, the married, priests, men and women in consecrated life.
The Collect for today’s saint is quite beautiful in its profound theology and in the poetry of its language. It reads:
Deus, cæléstium auctor donórum, qui in beáto Aloísio miram vitæ innocéntiam
cum pæniténtia sociásti, eius méritis et intercessióne concéde,
ut, innocéntem non secúti, pæniténtem imitémur.
Even the English text is lovely:
O God, giver of heavenly gifts, who in Saint Aloysius Gonzaga joined penitence to a wonderful innocence of life, grant through his merits and intercession, that, though we have failed to follow him in innocence, we may imitate him in penitence.
Yes, having “failed to follow [Aloysius] in innocence,” we ask for the grace to “imitate him in penitence.”
May the prayers and example of St. Aloysius enable us all to love and practice a wholesome and holy chastity, making us ready for that day when we shall behold our God, who will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Amen.
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