Wednesday, May 10, 2017

CLOSE YOUR EYES AND TAKE THE LEAP, GOD WILL BE THERE TO CATCH YOU. (A Letter from a Seminary Professor to his Graduating Students)

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13)

"One day you’ll wake up in the morning and say to yourself, ‘Graduation’s finally here!’"

Do you remember us talking about that in one of our classes? It probably sounded strange to you at that time; three, four years, can seem like forever when one has just begun his journey in college seminary. Well, that day has arrived. Time flies! In another year, the juniors will be waking up to their own graduation day, and then the sophomores. Freshmen, your time will come too!

You now belong to a long line of young men who have passed through the halls of this seminary and have made it, not without wounds and scars, but hopefully, better, stronger, braver, and ready to face yet another chapter in your lives.

Congratulations! You’ve made it. But this isn’t the end, only another beginning. The memories of your three or four years in this place will linger strongly for a while, then like many other things in life, they will also fade and eventually, everything you’ve gone through, the pleasant and the unpleasant, will be a distant memory.
The seminary isn’t perfect; no place is. But it was, for a good number of years, your home. God is, wherever we find him. And despite the heartaches, there is much that he has done for you in seminary. Leave then with joy and gratitude in your hearts.

As you go, I’d like to share with you the two important things I believe one should take with him as he ends one chapter of his life and transitions to another.

The first is the friendships, the relationships, the connections you’ve made with one another. It’s a blessing to have crossed each other’s paths, even briefly. We really don’t know how much we influence each other’s life.

But nothing in this world will ever change the fact that for a brief moment, you knew each other, cared for each other, fought with one another, hurt one another, and hopefully, grew and matured together because of all that.

It is my sincere hope and prayer, that wherever life takes you, and whatever you become, that you always remember that in the end, it is always people that matter. It is always people that count. And it is our relationships with each other that make us who we are.

I hope that the friendship you’ve shared with each other will spur you on to love people and truly care for them, not just with words, but with your hands, heart, and everything else you’ve got. “Love”, Saint Augustine says, “and do what you will”. That is what we’re all about.

Second, take with you, what was once our constant refrain, and what I believe seminary life as a conformation to Jesus is meant to teach. There is absolutely nothing to fear. God who first inspired you to take that step leading you to this place, will continue to guide you throughout the rest of your journey.

I am grateful to have been given the chance, for these past few years, to hopefully instill that in you.

The world awaits. Life now opens up for you to embrace you and bless with you everything you envision. But only if you look at life straight in the eye, and with courage in your heart, say, “I have nothing to fear. I can do this. I can do everything with Christ who strengthens me”.

That, in the end, sums up what seminary should do for each young man who passes through its hallowed halls.

Be brave then. Jesus is always with you. He will always love you, care for you, and keep you close to his heart. Trust in that always, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing to fear; not sin, not our weakness, not our faults, not our failures.

Close your eyes and take the leap. God will always be there to catch you. Be brave. And always love people. It’s as simple as that.

Go out into the world, either as students beginning your theological formation and preparing yourselves to minister to God’s people one day, or as loving, productive, and generous young men in continuous search for God’s plan in your lives.

And know that you will always have this old seminary professor of yours wishing you well and praying for you. 

May our good and loving God keep each one of you close to his heart, always.

Monday, May 8, 2017

"I HAVE NEITHER SILVER NOR GOLD, BUT WHAT I HAVE, I GIVE TO YOU." (A Letter from a Seminary Professor to his Students about to be Ordained Deacons)

“Receive the book of the Gospels whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, practice what you teach”. 

These words will be spoken to you by the bishop on your day of ordination. On that momentous occasion, you will come to the end of several years of formation in seminary; you will become a deacon, and you will begin what I pray will be an entire lifetime of loving, generous, and humble service to the Church, the People of God.

When, on the Third Day, the women came to the tomb to anoint Jesus' body, they were greeted by the angel keeping watch. They heard two things that seem to be constant refrains throughout most of the post-resurrection appearances: (i) "Do not be afraid", and (ii) "Go and tell the good news".

The scriptural formula isn’t new, especially the first half. In the Old Testament, when God’s messenger appears to kings, prophets, or holy individuals, the greeting “Do not be afraid”, or “Have no fear”, always accompanies the message as the initial greeting.

Usually though, the news being relayed is for the person to whom God’s message is being given. Even during the annunciation (to Mary and Zechariah in Luke), the structure of the greeting and message is the same: Do not be afraid – I have a message from God for you. In the post-resurrection narratives, the orientation, the trajectory goes outward, but the structure remains largely the same—at least the initial greeting: “Do not be afraid”.

It is the same message that God wishes to give you, and to carry in your heart as you begin your ministry as deacons and later on, as priests. “Do not be afraid”. God will be there for you, at every step of the way, at every turn, at every single moment. He will be there at the beginning of your journey, and he will await you at its end.

In ministry, our greatest enemy isn’t fatigue, it isn’t burnout, it isn’t our weaknesses, it isn’t the burdens that we will have to carry (ours and those of others), it isn’t the challenges and difficulties that relationships of every sort will bring us, it isn’t poor health or even material need (which is the least of our worries). The greatest enemy of our ministry, our fidelity to our vocation, and our promises, is fear.

But as Jesus assures and reassures his disciples, most especially after he rose from the dead and prepared to return to his Father in heaven, there is nothing to fear. When our gaze is fixed intently on Christ, when our entire life is anchored in him, we have absolutely nothing to fear – because he will always be there for us, to strengthen us and keep our hearts on fire.

"Go and tell the good news”! The orientation of our entire life should be outward, not inward; it should be a daily, hourly, and minute-by-minute proclamation of the good news that we have each experienced – the joy of being called and chosen by God. This is the heart and core of everything that we proclaim and everything that we do. But it must always go outward. The interior, St. Augustine reminds us, is far more important than what lies outside; and that is certainly true. That is always true.

At the same time,  the interior will mean very little (in the work of ministry and in the task of evangelization) if it does not make itself manifest externally: in our words, and in our deeds, but most especially in the witness of our lives.

You are the single greatest proclamation of the Gospel; not simply what you say, not simply what you do, but you. A simple yet ancient formula was recovered by the Fathers of Vatican II: Jesus is the sacrament of God; the Church is the sacrament of Christ; and you, are the ‘sacrament’, the most visible manifestation, representative, and embodiment of the Church. 

We are the church’s heralds, the church is the herald of Christ’s gospel, and Christ is the visible manifestation of the Father. We are part of a community of believers; we are its representatives, and we must be mindful of that in everything we do. But what we represent is not an institution, but a communion, a brotherhood, a fellowship of believers, bound by the good news that Jesus is Risen.

You are forever going to be a “herald” of the Gospel of Christ.

On the day of your ordination, the bishop is going to place the scriptures in your hands and say those words, “you are a herald of the gospel”. We preach the Good News of Christ risen, Christ triumphant over death, over suffering, over pain and sorrow. We preach him with our words, but we preach him with our lives as well. 

Remember, there are five gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and your life as witness. The first four most people will not be able to read. St. Francis was said to counsel his friars, “preach the gospel at all times, when necessary, use words”.

There is immense joy in this life you have chosen. There will be graces and blessings at every turn, but you must be ready and willing to see them, to pay attention to them, to recognize them, to savor them, and finally, to be grateful for them.

That joy, nothing will be able to take away from you, no setback, no challenge, no difficulty, no suffering, no solitude, no loneliness because your friends are gone. Nothing, absolutely nothing can take from you the joy this life brings – unless you let it.

We have the choice to be happy, fulfilled, joyful, content, and at peace in our life in the ordained ministry. Take joy in the lives of the people you shall touch – and believe me, there will be many.

You will have days when you shall be tired, exhausted, trying to catch your breath, but it will all be worth it, and you shall lie on your bed at night, truly happy, truly content, truly at peace – because you know you are continuing Christ’s work.

Enjoy celebrating the sacraments you are about to be able to celebrate, even as deacons. Those moments, especially the very first ones, with your friends, with your family, will be most memorable, most joyful, and most grace-filled. Their memories will stay with you for the rest of your priestly lives. But most of all, enter fully, or as best you can into the lives of those you will be ministering to, especially families that are grieving the loss of a loved one. Prepare your homilies well and have a great time preaching and opening the treasures of the Scriptures to the people of the parish to which you will be assigned.

Remember to be good providers; feed God’s flock well. To preach the gospel is the most important task of a priest, and that is your calling, that is your mission. Be generous with your time, diligent in your effort, and creative in preparing for Sunday Eucharist. Our people are hungry, do not let God's flock starve.

Be good fathers. Be good shepherds. Be protectors of your flock and defenders of the faithful whom God will entrust to your care. The late good bishop, Agustin Roman's motto should be a constant reminder to us: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel”. (I Cor. 9:16)

 “Believe what you read; teach what you read; and practice what you teach”.

We have spoken of the cross many times these past few days that we've been together, and you must never lose sight of the trajectory of our life in the ordained ministry. One must "minister from the cross."

But as we also tried to emphasize, ministering from the cross means knowing that it is from the vantage point of Jesus crucified that we serve others.

The primary focus of our attention is others, others, and always others – those whom God will send us to lead, guide, assist, aid, and serve. Self-negation won’t be self-negation, kenosis won’t be kenosis, and servanthood won’t be servanthood, if we remain focused on ourselves, our ideas, our sins, our wounds, our failings, our mistakes – and we will all make mistakes.

Some of these mistakes will be bigger, and your attention might even be called by your pastor and gently told about it, or maybe even by the bishop later on. We all get over them. We learn from our mistakes and we move on. Just keep doing things as best you can. And never stop finding joy and satisfaction with what you will be doing.

You know, ordination day will be exciting. But, trust me, nothing compares to waking up the following morning. Make every day of your life in the ministry, like the next day after your ordination. It will fill you with freshness, zest, enthusiasm, and energy.

You are heralds of the Good News, the proclamation that God’s Kingdom is at hand. Be that good news, to everyone you meet. Give them something to carry with them when they leave you. “Feed God’s sheep”. May they always know Christ, from having known you, in whatever way, in whatever capacity.

Be Christ to everyone you encounter, everyone you minister to. They may forget your name, but may the trace of that encounter that you shall leave them be a trace, a footprint of Christ, one that leads them to God rather than away from him.

In Christ, and in him alone, are our lives and ministries anchored. But it is also Christ, and him alone that we preach, that we give and share. 

"I have neither silver nor gold, but what I have, I give to you. In the name of Jesus the Nazorean, walk!” (Acts 3:6)

There will be moments, when because of sheer fatigue or whatever reason, we may find ourselves wanting to go back into our shell (whatever shells those might be – our areas of comfort, if you will). There may be moments when we feel so inadequate to the task (and honesty with our bishop is vital in this regard), but what’s truly important in ministry is “zeal for the gospel”, and the willingness to put ourselves on the line, trusting that God who “has begun the good work in us, will bring it to completion”. God will provide. He will always provide. [And never forget that very useful line, though one should never rely on it too often, ecclesia suplet, "the church supplies".]

“What I have, I give to you”. 

Be generous, God has been generous to us. “As I have done to you, so must you do for one another”, Jesus admonishes his disciples after he had washed their feet. The only fitting response to God’s love, forgiveness, kindness, and generosity that we have experienced from the very moment we felt him calling us, is to give that same love, forgiveness, kindness, and generosity to those he shall be sending to us, those we shall be ministering to, those whose lives we shall touch, and who shall touch our lives in return. 

“What I have, I give to you”. There was something Pope Francis said to the cardinals before the conclave – the notes of which he had apparently passed on to one of the cardinals (and he didn’t forbid him from talking about its content). The church he said, has to “go out into the world”. It cannot engage in what he called “narcissism and an unhealthy orientation that goes inward instead of outward”.

We are heralds of Christ’s gospel, and our place isn’t simply the sanctuary of our parishes, but the roads, the streets, the schools, the places of work – not that we are meant to “be there”, but the focus of our attention is evangelizing those who are there – so that they in turn can spread the net far and wide, and win the world for Christ.

Two last things:

First, allow others to minister to you. We may be heralds of the Good News, representatives of Christ, but so are others. And we must allow them to minister to us, in the same way that we minister to them. These persons, these men and women who will minister to you, are going to be the sources of God’s continued presence in your life and in your ministry. Allow others into your lives, because by doing so, you are allowing God to enter your life concretely, in the here and now.

Always be mindful of those whom God sends in order to be the sources of strength in our lives, the prophetic voices that will keep us on the straight and narrow. Never surround yourself with people who will only let you hear what you want to hear, but keep close those will make sure you hear what you have to hear.

Second, never lose the “heart of a child”. “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, practice what you teach”. It all begins, is sustained, and ends, with that simple word, “believe”. It is at the core of a child-like heart.

This might sound trite, but never stop learning, never stop growing, never stop increasing in wisdom and knowledge before God. I’ve said it again and again (perhaps because we cannot say it enough) - at the heart of all the problems of the Scribes and Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day, and of religious leaders of every time, and of every religion is that one fault: cynicism.

Its antithesis is the very first word in that line the bishop will say to you when he places the Book of the Gospels in your hands: “Believe!"

“Unless you acquire the heart of a child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God”. 

Never “grow old”, always keep your heart, your mind, your spirit, and your soul “child-like”. Never lose that sense of wonder, of amazement, of enthusiasm about life, about ministry, about yourself, about the church, about the priesthood.

The last couple of days, I shared with you five lessons I hope you take with you as we part ways today. And I quote from the Book of Acts, "silver and gold I have none, but what little I have I share with you".

(i) First, do not give in to jadedness and cynicism. (ii) Second, avoid church gossip like the plague. (iii) Third, stay close to the poor, they will be your salvation. (iv) Fourth, never dwell too long on difficulties and problems, keep your focus on Christ and on immediately finding a solution. And finally, (v) do something that will always remind you of the time before you were ordained.

Promise yourself to never give up doing something that will remind you of the time when you were still looking forward to becoming a deacon or a priest. It will keep you grounded, it will keep you humble.

Bishop John Noonan used to wash dishes and made coffee for people when he lived with us at St. John Vianney. The Cardinal Archbishop of Manila takes the bus, does his grocery shopping from time to time, and invites beggars on the street to join him at meals. Pope Francis continues to act like the pastor of a parish church. I know a priest who, despite his busy schedule, does his own laundry, except ironing his clothes, which he hates. What is yours?

May each day of your ministry, for the rest of your life, be like the morning of that first day after your ordination. May it always be like a well-tended garden, full of life, full of growth, full of color, full of hope.

Our lives in the ministry are a journey, a pilgrimage – deeper and deeper into the very heart of Christ. And along the way, there will be great joy, a lot of challenges, even difficulties and heartaches, but if we set our heart and mind, and our gaze firmly on Jesus, we have nothing to fear.

God who was there at the initial “founding moment of your vocation”, will be there at every step of the way; and he will be there at its fruitful completion.

With a heart filled with gratitude for having been given this unique grace and blessing to pray and walk with you during this most important point in the unfolding story of your calling, I bless you, as an older brother in Christ.

May the Lord, bless and keep you.
May His face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May He look upon you with kindness, and give you his peace.

Remember that you will always have this old professor of yours, praying for you, hoping only happiness and fulfillment for you in your ministry, and wishing you years of joyful service in the vineyard of the Lord.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

"BY HIS WOUNDS, WE ARE HEALED." (In Touching Jesus' wounds, we too, like Thomas, can find healing for our own woundedness. Thoughts on the Sunday of Divine Mercy, John 20:19-31)

"How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep...that have taken hold.”
Towards the end of the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien put these words in the mouth of his character Frodo.  

There’s been a lot of “disbelief” in the Gospel readings for Mass during this first week of Easter: Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the entire group being “rebuked” by Jesus for not believing Mary’s news to them. And today we hear the famous story of Thomas, doubting, proclaiming for everyone to hear: “Unless I touch his wounds, I will not believe”.

Why all the incredulity?

“There are some hurts that go too deep”. Some of life’s wounds are indeed so painful, deep, and hurtful that they seem to create a veil that covers one’s eyes, preventing him from seeing anything past the wounds themselves.

Could this be the reason the two disciples on the road to Emmaus failed to recognize Jesus even as he walked and talked with them? Perhaps their sorrow was too immense that they failed to recognize even the joyful demeanor of the stranger who suddenly joined them and spoke about the fulfillment of Scriptures to them.

Could this be the reason Mary Magdalene herself failed to recognize Jesus at the tomb, and thought instead that he was the gardener? I’ve read a commentary once that suggested it was Mary’s tear-filled eyes that actually prevented her from recognizing Jesus at first; they clouded her vision.

Could this be the reason the apostles refused to believe Mary when she first broke the news? Their sorrow and fear after all, made them lock themselves up and isolate themselves from the world. Could this be the reason Thomas wanted to see the nailmarks on Jesus’ hands and put his hand on his wounds?

It is a known fact that when a person experiences a tremendous tragedy, it casts a dark cloud over him, and for a time, all he can see is pain and sorrow, and he refuses to believe there can be anything beyond it. It is not uncommon to hear someone who has lost a loved one or experience tremendous suffering, say or wonder: “How can I go on?”

Life can lose a lot of meaning when we’re in pain.

Several Holy Weeks ago—as the church was bombarded from all sides about the scandals that have rocked our community for several decades now, the hurt and pain of it all, came very close to home. Two of my friends—both priests—called me up just to catch up on things. I love these guys dearly, they were like brothers to me in seminary, and they are still very dear friends. The thing is, they are themselves, both victims of abuse in the hands of priests—when they were very young, one when he was nine, the other when he was a teenager.

They haven’t been in active ministry for the last few years, as they’ve been quietly trying to receive healing and obtain justice for the pain and degradation they suffered at the hands of persons they trusted.

Not wanting to drag the church they still love into deeper media scrutiny and scandal, they’ve been working on their cases quietly. And because I am still in active ministry, they feel they have a connection still to the priestly life through our conversations. We still share our faith on the phone, I ask them about progress in their healing and therapy, and they continue to encourage me in my ministry.

These truly good men have been, for me, living witnesses and proofs of two things we often hear but take for granted: that the Church is truly a community of “sinners” as well as “saints”, but that no matter how sinful its members can sometimes be, one can nonetheless love it with one’s whole self; for it is, as one of them says, “the Body of Christ”.

A few years ago, on a Holy Saturday night, after coming home from the Easter Vigil, one of them called me up. The conversation was long. But at the end, I said to him:

“Happy Easter, my friend. What are you up to tomorrow?” After a rather long silence, he replied: "I haven’t had a real Easter in a while, you know. This year isn’t going to be any different. I know one day I will. I hope and pray for it everyday. I know I’ll celebrate Easter again. But not this year. Not yet."

"There are some hurts that go too deep."

Thomas’ doubt was not simply the result of a stubborn heart nor a questioning mind. It was the result of a pain too deep, the pain of having lost his friend, his Master who had been his life, and reason for living during the three years of Jesus’ ministry.

The pain of loss was too intense that it prevented him, just as it did the other disciples, from believing that Jesus had risen, that Easter had come, that his friend had really returned. 

Thomas himself was terribly wounded, and deeply broken. And yet, today, as Jesus allowed him to see the nailmarks on his hands, and put his finger and hand on his wounded side, Thomas received the healing of his wounds, and a lessening of his pain.

Often when we hear the story of Thomas, our attention is focused on his doubt. But the real focus of the gospel isn't his doubting. It’s just the lead-on to the real point, which is the restoration of his faith, the fact that he was made whole—because Jesus allowed him to touch his own wounds, and in touching his Savior’s wounds, Thomas touched his very own woundedness, his very own brokenness.

In touching Christ, in holding onto Christ, Thomas was made whole. Thomas’ sorrow was healed. Thomas’ faith was restored, allowing him to proclaim with all his heart: "My Lord, and my God!"

Whenever I talk to these two guys, or to others who have experienced the wrenching pain of betrayal on the part of the church that they love and on the part of those whom they trusted, I know no words of mine can take away their pain.

There is, even in the healing power of the priesthood, a tremendous sense of weakness and powerlessness. We aren’t the Savior after all. I know no words of consolation that I speak can heal them.

“There are some hurts that go too deep”.

Still, I do my best to tell them: “Look to Jesus. Hold onto him. Touch him that he might one day heal you. Don’t look to the institution. It isn’t bad, it serves its purpose. But it isn’t there that you’ll find your healing. Hold onto Jesus. Bind yourself to him. It’s your only hope”.

The words Jesus spoke to Thomas in today’s gospel are the same words he speaks to each one of us.

None of us is spared the wounds, hurts, and brokenness of life.

We’re all broken and wounded and pained, and sometimes, like my priest-friend, we can feel that we will never have an Easter.

And that’s why Jesus speaks those words to us: “Put your finger here and see my hands, bring your hand and put it into my side”.

“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep...that have taken hold”.

In touching Jesus' wounds, we come to touch our own, and in doing so realize—contrary to these beautiful lines from Tolkien—we can in fact be mended; we can in fact be once again made whole. Let us bring our woundedness, our brokenness then to him. 

“Let us touch his wounds, that in them we too may be healed”.

Saturday, April 22, 2017


"Instruction is completed by love."
- Augustine, De Moribus Ecclesiae [1]
Authentic friendship which seeks the good, not of oneself, but of the other, is a vital tool in education and seminary formation because it can foster an environment of trust, not only in the capacity of the teacher and formator, but in his concern for those he teaches and forms.
I can still remember a colleague at Providence College where I used to teach telling me: "Students can sense if a teacher is genuinely interested in them or not. If he's interested in them, they'll be interested in what he has to teach".
As a seminarian at the American College in Louvain, I remember asking my spiritual director, Fr. Richard Friedrichs (a priest from Providence, Rhode Island), a question that must have caught him off guard: "Are you really interested in me, or are you simply doing your job?"

"What do you mean?" he asked with a big smile on his face.

"Well, are you really interested in the lives of your students, or is this just work?" We had become good friends by then, and so I didn't feel like I was being disrespectful or inappropriate. Besides, we weren't in spiritual direction, but were simply chatting after dinner, and I wanted to gain a better understanding of his idea of ministry.

"It's a little bit of both really", he replied.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, it is my ministry; it's what I do. I won't deny that. I'm a spiritual director. It's also my assignment, my work, as you put it. But it's not simply a job. And it's certainly much more than just work. I love what I do. And I love the students God sends me to guide and direct. I'm not just your director and you're not just my directee. God is the one who ultimately directs us both. I'm just here to walk with you".

Fr. Friedrichs may or may not have read St. Augustine's De Magistro, but his thoughts certainly echoed Augustine who made a distinction between the magister exterior (the "external teacher") and the magister interior (the "internal teacher").

While we can serve as the external teacher, Augustine argued, Christ alone is the internal teacher and therefore, true educator, the one "who is said to dwell within the inner man, Christ, the unchangeable power of God and everlasting wisdom... the teacher whom every rational being consults".[2] And thus the role of the external teacher is to lead the student, not to himself, but to Christ, the teacher dwelling within.

I think I learned substantially more about the meaning of ministry from that simple exchange than from most of the lectures on pastoral ministry I attended as a student in Louvain. It was a clear instance of authentic friendship at work in formation; and it continues to bear fruit in my own ministry today.

At the same time, while authentic friendships between teachers and students, foster openness, trust and exceptional growth and maturity, inauthentic friendships create the exact opposite.

Here we must consider two issues that usually arise in relation to friendships in educational settings: the concern for fairness and the danger of favoritism.

Before I began my first official assignment as a priest, my very first spiritual director in seminary, John Zwaenepoel, a Belgian missisonary, wrote me a rather lengthy letter, a part of which I'd like to quote in full:

"As you begin your teaching ministry, be on guard against the ever-present danger of having favorites among your students. It's not only bad for you, it will be even worse for them.

Those who perceive themselves to be your "favored ones" - because they will feel themselves "shielded" and even "entitled" - will not see the need to challenge themselves to become better persons. Instead, they will turn into self-satisfied and arrogant men or, worse, self-satisfied and arrogant priests.

On the other hand, those who see themselves outside your "favored circle" - because they will grow in resentment, even bitterness - your words of challenge to them, no matter how loving and well-intentioned, will be seen only through the lenses of unfairness and injustice.

Do not favor the bright ones, nor the cheerful ones, nor the good-looking ones, nor the outgoing ones, nor the promising ones. But be fair to everyone.

Do not make the same mistake Samuel made when he looked at each of the sons of Jesse and was immediately drawn to the attractive older sons; then the Lord told him to look elsewhere.

Favor no one in particular, but love everyone of your students. Remember, you belong to no one, and to everyone, and God makes his sun shine on all, and his rain to fall on each one."

Favoritism in the classroom is a manifestation of an inauthentic kind of friendship, one that, instead of genuinely seeking the good of the other, really seeks what is good, desirable and pleasant for oneself.

In seminary, as in any other setting, it's also a great morale-killer since students who believe their teacher shows favoritism tend to become less engaged. They are also likely to speak about their observations to their peers, thereby creating a negative atmosphere that can inhibit growth, maturity and creativity.

When it manifests itself in an educational or formation setting, favoritism can severely damage the mutual trust that should exist between teacher and student.

This gives rise to feelings of resentment not only towards the teacher, but sadly, among the students themselves. Those who may not see themselves as part of the "favored group" can expend a lot of energy in trying to land a "spot" on the "favored list" - energy that should otherwise be used for endeavors aimed at personal growth.

But favoritism doesn't only harm and hurt to those who didn't make it to the "favored list", it also causes serious damage to those who are themselves on it, often creating a distorted sense of self-worth and entitlement. Why? Because educators who play favorites have a tendency, often exhibited unconsciously, to shield those they favor from the challenges and critiques that are necessary if genuine growth is to take place.

As Cicero warns in his treatise on friendship, "truth-telling, though it may sometimes give offense, is an essential duty from friend to friend", and "fondness should never interfere, as it does too often, with important services friendship can render".[3]

Resentment and bitterness on the part of those feeling themselves unfavored, entitlement, superiority and arrogance on the part of the favored ones, jadedness, disillusionment and cynicism in both, and the slow death of the fire of academic interest or vocation - these are the poisoned fruits of inauthentic friendship in the classroom or in formation.

Favoritism is thus a manifestation of that kind of friendship that is ultimately oriented at the good of the self, the good of the teacher, the good of the formator, not the student, not the formandi, whether favored or not. As such, this kind of friendship not only hampers the process of education and formation, it is actually destructive and harmful to these.

But what is the antidote to the poison of favortism? The simple answer is fairness. Just as God makes his rain fall on everyone,[4] so must a teacher act fairly and justly towards all his students.

The "friends" Jesus refers to in the Farewell Discourse, after all, are not a select or elite group of persons within the larger community of Jesus' followers.[5] They are, instead, all of his followers, with no exceptions.

But fairness does not involve a simple "leveling" of persons either.

It does not mean treating everyone with a kind of uniform impartiality, as if everyone were the same and should therefore be treated as such. Rather, it is recognizing in each student, in each formandi, a uniqueness that is his alone, that makes him exceptionally himself, and to gently guide him towards being able to see and embrace it as a gift. The key here is for the teacher or formator to see to it that this is done for all, with no exceptions.

There's a saying usually attributed to St. Augustine that goes: "God loves us as if there were only one of us to love". The actual line from the Confessions actually reads: "God cares for each of us as though we were the only one in his care".[6]

The point, of course, is that God loves each one of us in our uniqueness, and Jesus didn't die for a vague and amorphous "humanity". The "friends" whom he loved and for whom he gave his life, isn't a collective; it's each one of us, in our own distinct and singular personhood.

As such, the students whom a teacher must treat with fairness, whom a formator must regard with the same Christ-like love and friendship, do not belong to a faceless, homogeneous mass either. Rather, each student, each seminarian, is an unrepeatable uniqueness who must be treated as such and must be taught that there has never been, nor will there ever be anyone like himself.

Fairness, therefore, does not rule out the rise of exceptional individuals; in fact, it encourages and powers it. Nor does it mean simply giving every student the same thing. No two of them, after all, are alike, and thus the educator's job is not to either insist that they should all be the same, or to simply choose one over the other.

Instead, his task is to recognize the uniqueness of each and to strive to bring his affection and concern up to the same level for both, his ultimate goal being to convince each student that he is loved and cared for, in his very own uniqueness.

The educator must find something unique and special in every student and concentrate on it, keeping in mind that, as St. Augustine says in the Confessions, God's "gold" is to be found everywhere.[7] But this isn't easily accomplished. "The heart", says the Jeremiah, "is deceitful above all things",[8] and the reality is, "most teachers consider themselves above favoritism, but few are."[9]

Every teacher, every formator, being himself a unique personality, is likely to connect better with certain students than others. There will also always be some especially nice, pleasant, or intelligent student or seminarian who will be instantly likeable.

Human nature, being what it is, we cannot pick and choose those with whom we sometimes find an "instant connection". It's important to recognize that there isn't necessarily anything wrong with this, that is, until it begins manifesting undue preferences towards some of those with whom we more easily connect.

But then if the friendship that orients and directs our teaching or ministry is the authentic kind, the kind that is self-sacrificial in its pursuit of the good of the other, it will be defined by authentic self-critique and genuine humility.

And these are the very qualities that will allow us to carefully observe and examine ourselves, if and when we  feel we are favoring certain students over others, or when we spend a significant amount of time and energy on some while others get the short end of the stick.

It is our willingness to acknowledge that we could potentially be playing favorites and neglecting others that will serve as the first and important step towards being able to keep ourselves from engaging in behaviors that can negatively affect those placed under our care.  

- End of Part Three.

- Final Section: Holding our students close to our hearts.

[1] Augustine, De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae, "On the Practices of the Catholic Church", 56.
[2] Augustine, De Magistro, "The Teacher", 38.
[3] Cicero, De Amicitia, 20.
[4] Matthew 5:45.
[5] Raymond Brown, The Gospel according to John, XIII-XXI, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 683.
[6] St. Augustine, Confessions, III, 11. Translated by Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 50.
[7] St. Augustine, Confessions, VII, 9.
[8] Jeremiah 17:9.
[9] Eric Butterman, "Playing Favorites?" Instructor, vol. 116 (2007): 39.

Friday, April 21, 2017

FUNDARI AMICITIAM; Friendship, Fairness, and the Dangers of Favoritism in Education and Seminary Formation (PART TWO OF A SERIES)

"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends... I no longer call you servants, I call you friends." (John 15:13,15)

The kind of friendship Jesus offered his disciples and enjoined them to have for one another, is a friendship that loves another, that seeks the good of the other, for the other's sake, never for one's own.

Thomas Aquinas emphasizes this point in the Summa by distinguishing between what he called benevolentia (that is, a love that seeks the other's good) and concupiscentia (a love that seeks the other for one's own sake).[1]

And he adds that while not all love can in fact have the character of friendship, the kind of friendship Jesus speaks about in John 15:13-15 is one that has the character of "benevolence".

Now "benevolence" isn't only "willing the good of another", it is doing it, not for one's own sake, but for the sake, precisely of the other.

In fact, earlier on in the work, Thomas already made clear that the kind of love which is true friendship is far higher than love which is simply "desire," since desire relates to something we want while the love found in authentic friendship is a matter of willing the good of the other person.[2]

Seen from this light, it becomes understandable why St. Thomas identifies the link between love and friendship reflected in the words of Jesus to his disciples in the Farewell Discourse.

The friendship Christ offered was inseparable from the meaning he attached to it, a meaning he was to incarnate by laying down his life for them. It was, simply put, a love that held and kept nothing back, not even itself.

It was a love that sought the good of the other, solely for the other's sake.

From a purely philosophical, rational and logical level, this kind of endeavor seems hard to understand. For how indeed can we love another without looking for something, anything, in return?

In fact, even as we Christians are sometimes wont to say, the love of self seems inextricably linked with the love of the other, often leading to that idea - drawn more from psychology than Scripture - that one cannot love another person without loving oneself first, and that loving the other is a means towards ultimately loving oneself.[3]

It was certainly a tough thing for Jesus to enjoin upon his followers, which is perhaps why he showed them the way.

And so before telling them that he no longer spoke of them as "servants", but "friends", he tells them that there could be no greater love than for one to lay down his life for those he considers friends. (John 15:13)

As a Catholic philosopher, I've always taught my students that our faith tradition, perhaps more than any other, has always maintained a great respect, even reverence, for the philosophical quest. Philosophy is the ancilla theologiae - the humble servant without which the discipline of theology suffers great impoverishment.

Still, when it comes to some very profoundly important human experiences - in this case, friendship, reason and philosophy can only take us so far.

Consider, for instance, Aristotle's view on friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics where he says that there are basically three kinds of friendship: (i) a first kind based on utility, (ii) a second based on pleasure, and (iii) a third based on the goodness of individuals.

Friendships founded on usefulness involve persons who somehow derive some benefit from the relationship.

Friendships based on pleasure exist among persons who are drawn to each other because of good looks, intelligence, popularity, or other pleasant intellectual or physical attributes.

Finally, friendships based on goodness - the highest and noblest form for Aristotle - are found among those who admire one another's goodness and support and sustain each other in the pursuit of virtue.[4] 

Up to this point, everything in Aristotle's view of friendship appears somewhat compatible with the uniquely Christian view in John 15:13-15. In fact, like a lot of philosophical ideas, it can serve as an excellent point of entry into the scriptural understanding.

However, Aristotle also argues that an important ingredient in friendship is "reciprocity", a quality that thereby renders the relationship between friends essentially symmetrical.

And while he recognizes that certain relationships are not in fact reciprocal, such as those of father and son, the overall notion he has of friendship remains one where both parties stand in a relationship of basic "equality". [5]

And it is precisely on this point that the friendship of which Jesus speaks in his Farewell Discourse - which he commanded his disciples to embody and which, I believe, is the kind of friendship vital to effective teaching - parts ways with the philosophical understanding.

Sublime as Aristotle's notion of the highest form of friendship might be, it still falls short of Jesus' understanding which, at its core, is profoundly and surprisingly asymmetrical.[6]

It is in fact, a relationship, not of equals, but of one party willingly offering himself up for the sake of the other - the friend, the beloved - and wanting nothing in return except the other's well-being.

There is good reason, as Pope Benedict XVI points out in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, that the preferred term for "friendship" of the Christian scriptures is agape, and that while the term philia appears in the Gospel of John, it is used to express the depth of the agapeic relationship between Jesus and the disciples.[7]

The identification of friendship with self-sacrificing love in the "Farewell Discourse" sets the asymmetrical Christian notion of friendship apart, even from the highest Aristotelian type.

And it makes Thomas Aquinas' notion of the kind of love at the heart of true friendship, i.e. "benevolence" as a "willing of the good of the other", perfectly consistent with what Jesus taught his disciples.

The pattern of Christian friendship, therefore, isn't any of the Aristotelian types, not even the most noble one.

The ultimate model of Christian friendship, and the kind that must play a role in teaching and seminary formation, is the sacrificial and self-emptying friendship Jesus offered his disciples. It is a friendship that seeks the good of the other, and nothing else.

This, I believe, is an element that must never be left out in any consideration of the role friendship plays in the work of an educator.

Benevolence, if it is to be genuinely Christian, is genuinely kenotic ("self-emptying") and altruistic ("other-oriented"). It seeks the good of the other for the other's sake; and it must learn to recognize, critique and then gently set aside the desires of the self.

Friendship, if it is to play a positive role in education and formation, must also be cognizant of the essential asymmetry that exists between teacher and student, formator and formandi. Only then can it serve as a guide to a genuine, fruitful and truly formative relationship, and a safeguard against the inauthentic, unhealthy and even destructive kind.

And so we must distinguish between that kind of friendship that seeks the good of the other person, for the other person's sake, and that type which is ultimately self-interested.

The first is benevolent, altruistic and selfless, even self-sacrificing; the second egocentric and self-seeking. Let us simply call the first kind, "authentic" friendship and the second, an "inauthentic" one. Both can manifest themselves in education and formation ministry.

Authentic friendship is a vital tool in education and seminary formation because it can foster an environment of trust, not only in the capacity of the teacher and formator, but in his concern for those he teaches and forms.

- End of Part Two.

- Part Three. The concern for fairness and the danger of favoritism: Confronting two issues that usually arise in relation to friendships in educational settings.

[1] ST, II-II, q. 23, a. 1: "If, however, we do not wish good to what we love, but wish its good for ourselves ... it is love not of friendship, but of a kind of concupiscence."

2] ST, I-II, q. 26, a.4: "Love of concupiscence is distinct from love of friendship... that which is loved with the love of friendship is loved simply and for itself; whereas that which is loved with the love of concupiscence, is loved, not simply and for itself, but for something else."

[3] The Process philosopher, Charles Hartshorne, blasts this idea as a manifestation of egoism in his work "Beyond Enlightened Self-Interest". Cf. Charles Hartshorne, "Beyond Enlightened Self-Interest: The Illusions of Egoism", Process Philosophy: Basic Writings, eds., J.R. Sibley and P.A.Y. Gunter (New York, University Press of America, 1978) 393-417.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, 7.

[5] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, 7: "But there is another kind of friendship, viz. that which involves an inequality between the parties, e.g. that of father to son and in general of elder to younger, that of man to wife and in general that of ruler to subject." Still, generally speaking, friendship for Aristotle involves symmetry and reciprocity.

[6] Interestingly enough, this notion has a parallel in the Scriptural understanding of divine justice and righteousness which involves, not a relationship between strict equals, but between a powerful yet just and merciful God and a weak and sinful humanity - a relationship that Israel was enjoined to mirror in its own relationships.

[7] Pope Benedict XVI. Deus caritas est, 3.

[8] Augustine, De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae, "On the Practices of the Catholic Church", 56.

[9] Augustine, De Magistro, "The Teacher", 38.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)