I lost my innocence when I was ten years old. I was playing with my friends in our backyard one day and my older sister and a classmate arrived after a while. I remember hating my sister so much at that time for she was the favorite of my dad. My friends and I started teasing and taunting her. The next thing I know, I was throwing stones at her, until I picked a big one and hit her on the head where copious blood instantly gushed out. My sister fainted and as she was being rushed to the hospital, I became aware that I could have killed her; I became aware of my own capacity for evil. I no longer was the innocent child that I thought I was.
Loss of innocence is a common theme in popular books and movies. Common because it is part of what we call reality. Something happens in the childhood that shatters our sense of naiveté or innocence and makes us aware of the complexities of the world we live in, especially of the evil and darkness that exist in it. Put positively, others would call it growing up, or being real. However one calls it, everybody at one point or another in one’s life goes through this loss and is changed forever.
I remember this theme as we reflect on the Gospel passage today. In the face of the apostles’ sense of competition and pride (who is number one in the kingdom of God?), Jesus’ answer is very challenging: unless you become like children, you cannot enter the kingdom of God. We are therefore called upon to be childlike, innocent, humble, and obedient. But of course every one of us would want to be that; everyone would want to be a child before God. In fact, many of us like Peter Pan would not even want to grow up. Forever young as Bob Dylan prays in a favorite song. And yet something happens, life happens, and we grow old. We grow cynical, callous, corrupt.
I can only imagine what made Christ’s apostles ambitious or competitive in the Gospel today. I am sure they were not like that when they were children. Something must have happened to change their childlike dispositions; something must have happened that taught them the value of pride over humility, of worldly ambitions over child-like faith in God.
The good news, however, is that innocence lost can be regained. Not according to some psychologists. But in our Catholic Christian faith, we hold that we are children of God, that is our identity and our destiny. No matter how old you are, no matter what has happened to your life, spiritual childhood is a grace God gives always. If only we are open, if we only we believe if only we have faith. We can be born again, as Jesus tells Nicodemus, for it is he who makes all things new. So like the Psalmist we can pray, Create in me a pure heart, O God; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Our Saint for the day exemplifies this faith that allowed him to remain childlike. In spite of the sufferings he had experienced at the concentration camp, in spite of the tremendous evil he had known, Maximilian Kolbe could still innocently, lovingly give up his life to save a fellow prisoner. We could only pray that like him we will strive to be open to God and remain childlike before him, and when the world or life tries to snatch that innocence away from us, that we may believe that our angels as Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel will lead us back to God again and again. Amen.
This homily was delivered on August 14, 2018, by Fr. Nono Alfonso, SJ, at the Jesuit Health and Wellness Center.