Over the weekend, I saw a video clip on Facebook that brought tears to my eyes. The principal at an elementary school had asked each teacher to pick a few students to come down to the office for a one-on-one meeting. You could see that the kids were anxious at being called to the principal’s office, probably wondering what they did wrong. Each child sat in front of the teacher as the teacher began to explain. “I picked you to come to the office because I wanted to tell you that you inspire me every day to come to work and be a teacher. Your smile and readiness to learn new things makes me so happy.” The camera focused on the kids’ faces as the praise was showered on them. I don’t know whether I was moved because I was so joyful at seeing the kids being told they are worthy or because it hurt to think that this act of kindness has to be a special project.
Having been involved in education in various ways for nearly thirty years, I have decided that being passionate about your subject and making a connection with the student are the two most important things that make a teacher successful. That is always the advice I give to new teachers or catechists. 1) Connect and 2) show your joy in the subject matter! But seeing those kids lifted up made me also think about evangelization in general, and another incident I experienced came to mind.
It was not here, but a while ago I overheard people involved in religious education talking casually among themselves. They were discussing how messed up some people’s situations are who come to the Church seeking to enter into full communion. These people had complications from civil marriages; or they only wanted to bring the baby for Baptism but did not understand that this sacrament of initiation is only the beginning of a lifelong journey; or they complained about being required to attend classes or meetings before receiving the sacraments. Maybe the catechists were venting, but they were doing it in earshot of the students. To be sure, working in the Church can exhaust religious educators, but this kind of talk is akin to what you might hear in the teacher’s lounge at an elementary school — negative, unprofessional, and condescending. By asking the teachers to acknowledge that students are the reason for their profession, the relationship becomes mutually dependent. I think that as evangelists, we can take a lesson here.
Teaching people about the Catholic faith can only be done in light of joy in Catholic truths: evangelization must precede catechesis. It must be done in relationship. In Acts 8, the founding scripture of the St. Philip Institute, an Ethiopian eunuch from the court of the Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her treasury, was traveling to Jerusalem to worship. He was in his chariot reading from the prophet Isaiah. The Holy Spirit told Philip, “Go and join up with that chariot.” Philip obeyed the prompting of the Holy Spirit and then sat with the eunuch while he taught him. In his zeal, St. Philip connected with the newcomer to the faith.
How wonderful it would be if Catholics approached non-Catholics in the same spirit as the teachers in that video and as St. Philip. Over the years, I have talked to a lot of converts who felt unwelcome in the Church because they were not instantly good enough Catholics. A convert myself, I definitely had to grapple with the fear of not knowing the faith as well as a cradle Catholic. Granting assent to the truths of faith demands change in a person’s life, some quite a lot.
Religious education is an opportunity to bring the love of Christ to a soul who is searching. Next time I have the opportunity to teach someone about the Catholic faith, I’m going to remember to say something like, “Thank you for allowing me to tell you the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is good that you are searching. Your humility to be open to the gift of faith is inspiring!” I think we all are like those elementary school kids in the sense that every person wants to be seen and appreciated, especially by those who instruct us. Like St. Philip, evangelists should view our role as us being the ones who run and catch up to others so we can accompany them, and we should take care that we do not make them feel that they need to catch up to us.