Book Review: Teachers as Easter People

The People Wish to See Jesus: Reflections for those Who Teach
By Pope Francis
Translated by Michael O’Hearn
The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2014

One of my favourite moments of the year is early autumn, when chestnuts are ripe, the summer heat is beginning to relent, and I enter a classroom filled with students eager to begin a new academic year. While inevitably nervous, I am always excited to meet the people whose paths will briefly intersect with mine; I also feel honoured that they are trusting me as our guide in their own search for knowledge, and I always pray that I will not let them down as the weeks and months progress.

Though he does not say it explicitly, I have a strong sense that Pope Francis, who worked as a high school teacher in the early years of his priesthood, has fond memories of beginning of the academic year. However, in his native Argentina school starts not in September but March; thus, it is hardly surprising that The People Wish to See Jesus, a compact yet bounteous collection of reflections on catechesis and teaching, begins with a meditation on Lent:

“’Repent, and believe in the Gospel.’ This is what the priest said to us last Wednesday during the imposition of the ashes. We begin Lent with this mandate: Break our heart, open it so that it believes in the Gospel of truth, not in the erudite Gospel or the light Gospel or the watered-down Gospel, but in the Gospel of truth. Today, this Gospel is asking you in a special way, as catechists, ‘to repent and believe in the Gospel. But this also gives you a mission in the Church: to act in such a way that others will believe in the Gospel. Watching you, seeing what you do, how you behave, what you say, how you feel, how you love – this will lead them to the Gospel’” (3).

For Francis, the fundamental character of the teacher is that of a missionary who, leading by example, responds to the needs of a troubled people. “Today, more than ever, you can see in so many of our people’s demands a search for the Absolute, which, at times, takes on the form of an outraged humanity’s painful cry: ‘We wish to see Jesus’ (John 12:21)” (10). According to Francis, the people who come forward with this plea are well known to us. “They are the faces of children, of young people, of adults. Some look like the ‘beloved disciple,’ others like the prodigal son. There is no lack of faces marked by pain and despair” (10).

It is to these faces that we are called to respond – just as the women of Jerusalem did upon witnessing the resurrection – with a testament of faith. “Our people are tired of words; they don’t need teachers so much as they need witnesses,” he says (10). For this reason, it is hardly surprising that a book that begins with a meditation on Lent concludes with a focus on Easter. For Francis, Easter provides us with an opportune moment to reflect on education as a shared commitment that is intimately bound up with the mystery of Christ’s resurrection:

“’Do not be afraid.’ Your task as Christian educators, no matter where it is carried out, participates in the newness and power of Christ’s resurrection. Its paschal character takes nothing away from your task’s autonomy as service to humanity and to the national and local community, but it provides it with a transcendent meaning and motivation, and a power that does not come from any pragmatic consideration but from the divine source of the call and the mission that we have decided to take on” (111)

Like his previous book Open Mind Faithful Heart (which I discuss in a previous post), The People Wish to See Jesus is a compilation of essays and talks written and delivered at different times and for different audiences. Like his earlier work, however, these separate writings are edited  so as to flow together coherently if not seamlessly. Also like his earlier work, they are directed toward a specific group of people – educators, particularly catechists. However, Francis speaks with a fairly high level of abstraction that makes it possible for a wide range of readers to relate to them.

In the first part of the book, Francis cautions educators to “Love, Look, Cherish, Then Teach.” It is an easy temptation to jump to the last item on this list without first pausing to examine our own commitment to the Gospel message: “One of the Church’s most serious problems, and one that often endangers its evangelizing efforts, lies in those pastoral agents – those of us who are most interested in the ‘things of God’ and most integrated into the ecclesiastical world – who frequently forget to be good Christians” (31). It is so easy to get wrapped up in the more technical and theoretical aspects of knowledge as well as the day-to-day practical challenges of teaching that we lose focus on Christ, who is at the centre of what we do.

As an antidote to this problem, Francis urges educators to draw strength from the Eucharist, a banquet in which we are called “to make efficacious the miracle of ‘neighbor empathy,’ which enables us, in this globalized world, to provide a place for our brothers and sisters and to ensure that the poor feel at home in every community. Catechists are called to make the doctrine the message, and the message, life” (13).

Francis also reminds us that in order to follow Jesus’ example and speak with authority (a word whose etymological meaning has nothing to do with power or eloquence but instead denotes “that which nurtures and augments”), we must embrace silence and listen before we speak. “[As] men and women of the Word, [catechists] should also be men and women of silence – contemplative silence that allows them to rise above the word inflation that reduces and impoverishes their ministry to hollow wordiness, like so much of what contemporary society offers us,” he states (33).

A few pages later, he reminds us of the importance of dialogue: “Learning to listen will permit us to take the first steps so that the warm welcome that is so desired will become a reality in our communities […] Listening fosters dialogue and makes possible the miracle of empathy that overcomes distance and resentments” (42). Contemporary ideas of student-centred teaching often suggest that a good teacher avoids being a “sage on the stage” and instead acts as a “guide on the side.” For Francis, however, a good teacher is a guide in the centre, deeply engaged in listening and allowing kerygma – divine revelation – to be made present for students.

In the second half of the book, Francis turns his attention from the formation of the teacher to the spiritual and social significance of education as a whole. For Francis, the idea of being a “people” is highly important and means much more than being a sum of individuals; he even calls it a “mystical category” (87). A people is dynamic, but also grounded in space and history, encompassing many generations. “We often ask ourselves with some concern, What world are leaving to our children?” Francis remarks. “Perhaps it would be better to ask: What children are we giving the world?”(75).

Francis asserts that teaching is an act of empathy that goes beyond the personal level. Just as Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan taught that we must look beyond those most similar to us and see our neighbour in the foreigner and stranger, Francis sees teaching as a way of recognizing our common humanity in each student and, likewise, seeing each student as embodied in a wider humanity. “To be ‘a teacher’ is thus, above all, a way to ‘exercise humanity.’ A teacher is one who loves and teaches the difficult task of loving every day, by personal example of course but also by helping to create devices, strategies, and practices that help to make this basic truth a possible and effective reality,” he says (97). This type of love that he discusses is not a feeling, but the experience of ‘becoming a neighbor’; it is social in nature. “There is a true paradox in the mission of teachers: the more attentive they are to detail, to the small things, to the singularity of each student and the contingency of each day, the more their actions are linked to the common, to the great, to what makes the people and the nation” (101).

Though mostly written in abstract language meant to be relevant to a broad base of people, Francis’ collection does have moments where he expresses a groundedness in the specific historical reality of Argentine, where in the 1970’s thousands of people were illegally imprisoned, tortured and disappeared by the dictatorial government. Confronting the memory of a historical moment in which practically all social institutions were stripped of their credibility, Francis states,

We need to recreate our institutions and to trust again in the mechanisms that, as a people, we have produced to move toward collective happiness. And this is everyone’s task: ruler and ruled, strong and weak, those who have and are able and those who have little and are less able […] Everyone: daring to create conditions, possibilities, and concrete strategies to bring us together again and be a people. We have experienced such a horrible history that ‘not being involved in anything’ passes as being synonymous with integrity and virtue. Perhaps the moment has arrived (and none too soon) to leave this mentality behind to recover the desire to be committed actors with values and truly noble causes” (106).

The People Wish to See Jesus brims with insight and passion; while reading it, I found myself underlining so many powerful passages that I cannot hope to share them all here. I urge you to read the book for yourselves and promise you that Francis’s challenging yet compassionate words will make you want to go “into the streets” as our pope exhorts us to and become the best teacher – that is, the best witness – you can be.

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  • http://atheistmax.wordpress.com Atheist Max

    Interesting review.
    I look forward to reading this book.

    “We need to recreate our institutions and to trust again in the mechanisms that, as a people, we have produced to move toward collective happiness…” – Pope Francis

    Religion behaves best when it is weak.
    Here is an example of selling religious institutions by stressing the love, community feeling and unity which churches are capable of.
    There is no question religion is capable of doing good in this way. Muslims experience the same thing in the Mosque. – The ‘in’ group gets many benefits for joining. Francis makes a compelling appeal.

    Most religions look best at the point of sale.
    Buyer’s remorse comes much later – as more thought is applied.

    The drift away from religion is picking up pace across the culture.

    I think I know why churches are struggling.
    Of many reasons, the big one is ‘authority’.
    People simply can’t stand authorities anymore. And unless an institution can offer satisfying answers, it is going to disintegrate. Faith is only good if one trusts the authoritative claim that it is good.

    Another problem is the meaning of ‘the love of Christ’. Though love is the lure of the church, it doesn’t really hold up as religious people demonstrate across the political spectrum against gays, lesbians, women’s rights, etc.
    This is really a puzzle and churches haven’t offered good answers. Again “Authoritative Love” (Jesus) is very different from “trusting love” or “reciprocal love.”

    Perhaps the Jesus quote is correct? “The way is narrow.”

    But if Jesus is true, then no amount of aspiration will change the equation – most people will end up in Hell anyway – so that would argue in favor of a much smaller institution.
    Yet, it is clear Francis (paradoxically) is looking for expansion.

    He’ll sell a lot of books. But so did Martha Stewart.
    Messages from authorities will not be enough.

    • http://anotherliberalcatholic.wordpress.com jeanninemariedymphna

      Atheist Max, I thank you for your provocative yet gracious comment. I have a few things to say in response.

      You say, “Religion behaves best when it is weak. Here is an example of selling religious institutions by stressing the love, community feeling and unity which churches are capable of.” I do not think that Pope Francis (who wrote this material before becoming pope) is seeking to sell anything. Instead, he is reminding teachers and catechists of what our role is as witnesses of Christ’s love (which is a given – it cannot be bought or sold) in the world. It is not about convincing people to join the Church by enticing them with the benefits of the “in group”; rather, we are called to reach beyond the comforting confines of our community, to go forth into the world and be active witnesses to our faith and love, living these through actions more than words. Ultimately, we are called to love our enemies – something we all fall short of in practice, but it is nevertheless our goal.

      You are correct that many people are drifting away from faith. You say, “People simply can’t stand authorities anymore. And unless an institution can offer satisfying answers, it is going to disintegrate.” This is a very important point, and I am planning to write a post at some point on the breakdown of authority across society. It’s also something personally relevant to me as a teacher – when I was growing up in the ’90’s, my classmates and I tended to treat teachers as authorities by default; now that I’m on the other side of the desk, I usually find that I have to prove to my students that I am worthy of their attention and respect; I cannot claim authority by default of my profession and social role (something which can be hard not to resent)! There are also a lot of discussions in this vein around the loss of authority in parenting and the proliferation of “child-centred families.” I’m curious to hear your further thoughts on why authority is breaking down. Is it related to a breakdown of communities? Are human beings becoming more mistrustful of one another? Has the overabundance of information on the Internet led more people to feel that they can only rely on themselves when seeking the truth?

      Then again, is this breakdown of authority a real phenomenon? You say that people can’t stand authorities anymore, but meanwhile, people continue to practically worship legendary figures like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr; more modestly, the popularity of an institution like TED and the standing ovations that someone like Jane Goodall receives for her lectures suggest that we are still eager to turn to experts for advice and wisdom.

      As for the Catholic idea of Christian love, I am afraid you are mistaken. We believe that the love of Christ is unconditional and universal, and while our human love can never compare to it in magnitude or abundance, we seek to live it out as best we can. As Catholics, we are called to advocate for the most vulnerable members of society – immigrants, death row prisoners, the poor, the unborn, the elderly, the developmentally disabled – and maintain a fierce belief of the dignity of all. Issues around women and LGBTQ people are certainly posing a grave challenge to the Church and I suspect are among the main reasons for its losses. We are working to resolve these issues, but it takes time.

      “But if Jesus is true, then no amount of aspiration will change the equation – most people will end up in Hell anyway – so that would argue in favor of a much smaller institution.” The Catholic teaching is that ALL are ultimately called for heaven – not just baptized Catholics who profess a belief in Jesus as God. We do maintain the belief that hell exists, and that IS scary for us, as not one of us can be sure that we will avoid it. However, my hunch is that on a day-to-day basis most Catholics don’t spend large amounts of time fearing hell. The main message I’ve taken from 12 years of Catholic education and a continued adult participation in the Church is that following Jesus is its own reward – in this life as much as the next.

      • http://atheistmax.wordpress.com Atheist Max

        Hi Jeannine,

        You said,
        “I’m curious to hear your further thoughts on why authority is breaking down. Is it related to a breakdown of communities? Are human beings becoming more mistrustful of one another?”

        Well, I think we are seeing the powerful influence of the internet and social media – the combination destroys authority.

        Though some people are considered authorities on particular subjects (Nelson Mandela, etc) it is safe to say we are all capable of learning a lot about what everyone else knows – and this is quite a game changer.

        For example, not only do I know about the space probe which landed on a comet last year – I ALSO KNOW THAT YOU KNOW about it too. And I know that if you don’t know now, you will google it and then you will know all about it. By simply sharing some knowledge, we can get more knowledge!

        Think of the power of that.

        All you have to do is mention something to me and I can look it up and learn all about it in a few minutes without ever getting out of my chair. I certainly would not become an expert in the subject (electromagnetism, say) but I could learn enough to have a conversation with you about it!

        Imagine how destructive that is to a religion.

        Think about God Zoroaster, for example.
        Zoroaster was a God who supposedly was worshiped for 4000 years. A reign twice as long as Jesus.
        And Zoroaster was a man-god, like Jesus.
        Zoroaster was the beginning of the concept of dualism: The idea that Good and Evil were separate gods.

        In the legends of Jesus we have a scene where the Magi come to pay respects to the baby Jesus.
        These Magi were actually symbols of the Zoroastrians – the meaning of this myth is an attempt by the early Christians to say “Even the zoroastrians acknowledge Jesus Christ as the new king”

        By now you have looked up Zoroaster by yourself.

        You have discovered that I have described the rough outline of Zoroaster – and if I have missed a few details you will be able to correct me!!

        My point is:
        The internet makes it impossible for someone to make authoritative claims about anything.

        No sooner has someone made a claim and it has been checked at Wikipedia or some other website.

        Institutions which depend on Authoritative Claims (religions being only one example) are going to fail in this environment.

        Is Jesus Christ really the son of God?
        Look up the stories yourself and they fall apart. Godisimaginary.com is particularly informative.

        The Church cannot survive without being able to claim – with authority – “Jesus Christ matters”.

        But suppose he doesn’t?
        Faith depends on not knowing the answers. But it is impossible for a person of even average ability and intelligence to NOT KNOW in this modern age.

        • http://atheistmax.wordpress.com Atheist Max

          Jeannine,

          I am not here to push doubts on believers. I was merely answering your question. I found the review of Pope Francis’ book very interesting.

          You said,
          “Ultimately, we are called to love our enemies – something we all fall short of in practice, but it is nevertheless our goal.”

          As a Catholic for 44 years I certainly believed this, as you do.
          But I have changed my mind.

          I have seen that “Love thy Neighbor” is rather irrelevant when you consider the rest of Christian teachings:

          “Do not associate with anyone..if he is guilty..”
          (1 Corinthians 5:11)

          “Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” (1 Corinthians 15:33)

          “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting” (2 John 1:10)

          “Avoid Them” (Romans 16:17)

          Clearly, you can see my problem.
          If Jesus says: “Love thy neighbor” and yet finds all the rest of these very judgmental commands to also be God’s word – it is very hard to see that as love. It adds up to a peculiar set of instructions which deserve to be questioned.

          How does one judge others so harshly and remove them from your life while simultaneously call it ‘love’?

          It is incoherent.
          The result is that I am forced to decide these moral conundrums on my own and in my own way. I AM THE DECIDER on what Jesus really meant.

          And if I must do that all by myself anyway………I don’t need Jesus.

          But thanks for asking.

      • http://atheistmax.wordpress.com Atheist Max

        Dear Jeannine,

        you said,

        “We believe that the love of Christ is unconditional and universal, and while our human love can never compare to it in magnitude or abundance, we seek to live it out as best we can.”

        When I was a Catholic I believed the same thing you do.
        But I have changed my mind about this. Because…

        Christ’s love is conditional. And it is not universal.

        According to the same stories which tell us about Jesus, we are also told these things about what Jesus said:

        “reject me and… ye shall be judged” – JESUS (JOHN 12:47)

        “Believe… or be condemned” – JESUS (Mark 16:16)

        “deem them unworthy…remove your blessings of peace.” – JESUS (Matthew 10:13)

        “Don’t waste….on the people who are unholy. Don’t throw your pearls to pigs!” – JESUS (Matthew 7:6)

        “shake the dust off…for a testimony against them.” – JESUS (MARK 6:11)

        “Bring to me those enemies of mine and execute them in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

        It is important to understand the context of these messages, it is also important to accept that they are illustrations of ‘THE CONDITIONS’ required for Jesus’ love.

        Love is safe for both parties – it is kind and it is trusting. It depends on mutual respect – not worship of one over another.

        I do not believe the love of Jesus is real.

        Regarding context: The people who wrote the Bible 2000 years ago had notions of love which were more about devotion to kings and loyalty to a master – slavery was the norm and obedience to an oppressive authority was a sign of love in ancient times.

        These ideas of Love are very primitive and not workable anymore. This sort of ‘love’ functions perversely – in slavery and feudalistic societies only. And it isn’t love.

        Thank you for bearing with my long answers. Didn’t mean to go on so long.

        My warm regards,

        Atheist Max

    • Mark VA

      Atheist Max:

      My grade school was officially atheist (behind the Iron Curtain, but in a very Catholic culture), so as you can imagine, I’m familiar with many atheist and religious modes of thinking. By the way, atheism, like religion, is also “denominational”, something you may know by now;

      I would describe your current denomination as “missionary” atheism. Some others I would call “contemplative” atheism (very private and high brow), “I just don’t think about it” garden variety atheism, and well organized and energetic “Calvinistic – messianic – political” atheism;

      Your points have a “deja vu” ring to them in my ears – I’ve digested them a long time ago. I could also expand your list with a few more. However, one thing I’ve learned is that abstract “religion vs. atheism” polemics usually don’t change anything. But they do heat up the air, and can be emotionally satisfying for one or both sides;

      I believe that honest questions about the veracity of religion and atheism should be studied and reflected upon in their full and accurate historical contexts – “Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew, 7:16).

      However, I also think we should study our own side first, privately, with humility and painful honesty. Perhaps only then can we have a fruitful discussion.

      • http://atheistmax.wordpress.com Atheist Max

        Hi Mark VA,

        I’m sorry if there was some confusion. It appears you think I have made a claim. But I have not made any claim.

        I don’t believe in God but that is only an opinion – not a claim.
        I do not claim god is impossible. A god may exist.

        I don’t know if God exists which is why I am Agnostic.
        I don’t believe a God exists, which is why I am Atheist.
        Agnosticism is about knowledge. Atheism is about belief.

        But I am open to the possibility of a God – if you can demonstrate some evidence I’m happy to consider a God.

        I am familiar with the claim “God does not exist” – but that is is a claim I did not make.

        Atheism is not a claim.

        “GOD does Not exist” is a statement I would never make. I have no idea whether a god exists and I cannot prove he does not.

        I am an Atheist. This means I do not believe in the god you speak about.
        That does not mean I reject your God if you can show evidence for it.

        Do you have evidence of God?

        • http://digbydolben.wordpress.com dismasdolben

          The New Testament definition of “faith” is much looser than what Catholics or Protestants usually claim for their so-called “confessional faiths”: “Faith,” said Saint Paul, is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Do you HOPE for nothing?. If so, the Christian may justifiably consider you an “atheist.” Do you honestly believe that, in the realm of pure philosophic reasoning (and Euclidean geometry, too, for God’s sake!) there aren’t unproved propositions that make whole systems work logically? If you’re such a principled materialist, then you may call yourself an “atheist.” If you, however, have a FEELING that, ultimately, “all will be well” for you and others, in the fullness of time, and in the Providence of the universe, you are no atheist, despite what your fallible “reason” is telling you. As a kind of existentialist, though, what I always want to ask any atheist is “Why do you HOPE that God doesn’t exist, when you could just as easily, and with equal legitimacy, HOPE that He does?”

        • http://atheistmax.wordpress.com Atheist Max

          Hi dismasdolben,

          Thanks for your thoughts.
          If I hope for a million dollars in my bank account, that won’t be enough to make it actually exist.

          I have lots of hope for many things but the hope is not evidence that it exists, yet.

          Not sure why anyone would hope for a god to exist, it does seem unnecessary (especially since those without god seem to do fine)

          But do you have evidence of a God?

          I’m not here to spread doubts, but Pope Francis does make a lot of claims which appear to not be true – and the book review above did spark some questions.

          Do you have some evidence?

          Thanks for your thoughts.

        • http://atheistmax.wordpress.com Atheist Max

          Dismasdolben,

          You said,
          ” If you…have a FEELING that, ultimately, “all will be well” for you and others, in the fullness of time, and in the Providence of the universe, you are no atheist, despite what your fallible “reason” is telling you.”

          Suppose that feeling could be shown to be based on nothing more than chemistry (which is what the evidence shows) and that certain chemicals, like seratonin, actually affect how we feel regardless of religion or even knowledge.

          Seratonin is created in the brain. Those who have the wrong balance will become depressed and medication is very effective at restoring it.

          Are you ready to say that a pill is god?
          I’m not.
          But that is because I don’t think there is evidence of a god interceding.

          Is there some evidence of a god which you can point to?