No Trip to Disneyland: Mosquito Netting and Malaria Medication Aren't Usually on the Packing List for a Family Vacation. but Seeing the Developing World Firsthand Can Be the First Step for Young Catholics to Realize That "It's a Small World, after All."

By Maher, Gregory | U.S. Catholic, December 2007 | Go to article overview

No Trip to Disneyland: Mosquito Netting and Malaria Medication Aren't Usually on the Packing List for a Family Vacation. but Seeing the Developing World Firsthand Can Be the First Step for Young Catholics to Realize That "It's a Small World, after All."


Maher, Gregory, U.S. Catholic


Megan Lavery was 4 when she and her family left Missouri in 1977 to serve as Maryknoll lay missionaries for three years in the hardscrabble village of Chiantla, Guatemala. It was only years later, while in college, that Lavery began to understand the impact of her experience, as she encountered students in upstate New York who hadn't traveled outside their small towns. "They didn't know there was a world much different than theirs," she says. "It meant something to me that I did, and I traced that knowledge to my time in Guatemala."

Lavery's comments evoke the words of a great educator, Maria Montessori, who stressed the importance of "social education at a young age." Should a "social education" with an eye to the developing world be a priority for young American Catholics in a global church? Do Catholics have a duty to strive to imbue justice into economic and political systems that affect billions living in the developing world?

Pope Benedict XVI addressed the last question in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, where he wrote that the church "cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice." A world where people and their cultures are less distant than ever before "challenges us to share their situation and their difficulties."

For some young Catholics, sharing those difficulties bumps up against subtle yet powerful forces. Today's public square often highlights struggles for personal holiness and acceptance of Christ. A close relationship with God is indeed crucial to faith, but for Catholics especially, it also begs a question: How does a successful personal struggle result in a more just world?

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Our income-stratified suburbs--places often far removed geographically and psychologically from the troubles plaguing the world's poor--compound the problem, causing many young Americans to live in a bubble, unexposed to the spectrum of economic conditions both in their own country and throughout the world. Developing an expansive, social holiness in this setting can be difficult.

Yet the gospel unquestionably requires us to comprehend and seek to reduce the inequities in our world. In my view visiting a poverty-stricken land and seeing how the real people there live is a vital ingredient in that journey, one for which there simply is no substitute.

While none of us wants our children subjected to physical danger or psychological trauma, we should be gently encouraging them to consider on-the-ground experiences in safer parts of the developing world. Unhomogenized moments among the poor will likely make them better equipped to empathize with the destitution many face. Whether mission work, student backpacking as a teenager, a domestic service project in the post-hurricane Gulf region, or even an excursion during a Latin American, African, or Asian vacation, travels like these can be transformative.

Typically the shorter the stay, the less a visit can accomplish, particularly if a work project is involved. Plus the nature of the experience is crucial. Passing by street poverty for two weeks near a Caribbean resort is unlikely to be as powerful as living in the midst of it for a week. Six months or more of mission work offers the most complete exposure, but is difficult for many Americans to do.

Turning a child's or teenager's heart toward the poor, even during a shorter, perhaps shallower experience, is much harder to measure. Janine Boucher-Colbert, youth programs director for Catholic Relief Services West, recalls her family's frustration during her first week in Brazil. "A wise Maryknoll priest adviser told me that not knowing the language 'is a great gift for us who are wealthy, as it is the only time we are really poor, dependent, and not in charge.'"

Even a brief visit can plant potent seeds. …

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No Trip to Disneyland: Mosquito Netting and Malaria Medication Aren't Usually on the Packing List for a Family Vacation. but Seeing the Developing World Firsthand Can Be the First Step for Young Catholics to Realize That "It's a Small World, after All."
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