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.