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 in 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 like the other disciples, from believing that Jesus had risen, that Easter had come, that his friend came back to life.

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 is not 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 Christ 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 trust, 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; 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 the wounds of Christ, 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 Christ. 

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

Saturday, April 22, 2017

THE EDUCATOR'S ROLE IS TO LEAD THE STUDENT, NOT TO HIMSELF, BUT TO CHRIST, THE "INTERNAL TEACHER." - St. Augustine (Part Three of the Series "Fundari Amicitiam")

"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.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

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

"Teaching is imposed on us by the necessity of love."  - Saint Augustine of Hippo
 
What role does friendship play in the work of education or, in the case of persons engaged in seminary ministry, formation? What spirit should guide it?

What does it mean to say that effectiveness in education and formation involves the realization that one cannot merely form students in the manner of one "pouring" something into an empty receptacle, but by way of a fellow-learner, a fellow-seeker, a fellow-traveler and co-discerner on the road towards knowledge, wisdom, maturity and growth?

Can an educator truly be a friend to those he or she teaches without losing sight of the importance and necessity of fairness, and without ending up playing favorites among those being taught?

These are some of the questions I would like to consider in this series of reflections on education and seminary formation.
 
In his dialogue De Magistro ("On the Teacher"), St. Augustine argues that teaching and learning belong to a single process in which teacher and student are mutually involved in educating each other and learning from one another.

Teaching, Augustine says, is not the mere transmission of knowledge from one mind to another. Rather a teacher must meet those he or she educates "with a brother's, a father's and a mother's love".[1]

The most effective teachers are those who "journey with" rather than simply "instruct" their students.
 
In the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciples: "I no longer call you servants, I call you friends" (John 15:15).

St. Thomas Aquinas begins his treatment of love in the Secunda Secundae of the Summa Theologica by explaining that at the root of this change (from "servants" to "friends") is the love the disciples discovered and experienced during their time with Jesus and which, as he now prepared for his suffering and death, he enjoined each of them to have for one another.

Simply put, the love Christ offers his disciples, St. Thomas says, is friendship.[2] And he defines such love as "benevolence", i.e. willing the good of the other - something that an educator must obviously have towards his or her students.

Without such love - a "brotherly friendship" - as Augustine calls it, the desire to learn simply cannot be kindled by a teacher in those he teaches.[3]
 
But can an educator really be a friend to his students? What does it mean for a formator to be a friend to those he forms?

A good friend who's been in seminary ministry all his life once told me: "We can't really consider those we teach our 'friends;' they, after all, aren't our peers. We should be friendly towards our students, compassionate and always kind to them. But friendship? I don't see much wisdom in it. The teacher-student relationship is an essentially asymmetrical one. Besides, future priests, especially after the problems the church has had over the last couple of decades, need to be taught the real value and importance of recognizing and respecting professional boundaries. Teachers and seminary formators should be the first to model that".

This is certainly a valid school of thought and, clearly, a very wise and important one. 
 
And yet there's that other view that says the most effective teachers meet their students "where they're at", who enter into their lives, respecting boundaries, yet seeking to understand them in a way that doesn't limit them to a name requiring an evaluation at term's end.

"Remember, you were once a student yourself", another good friend told me before I began teaching. He had been himself in formation ministry for many years, and holds that the Incarnation should be regarded as the ultimate paradigm of education and formation: God entered into the life of humanity in order to raise it up.

"The best teachers are those who walk with their students and, in the process, grow with them. True and meaningful education only happens in the spirit of friendship. Even Jesus regarded his disciples as friends."
 
Clearly, there is truth and wisdom in both perspectives. They aren't mutually exclusive, though admittedly, there is also risk involved in both.

Is it possible then to arrive at a unifying middle ground between these equally valid positions? What would such a middle ground look like, and how can it serve as a practical guide for those of us in the ministry of education and seminary formation?

Before attempting to answer these questions though, allow me to share the context that gave rise to them; and by that I mean, my own particular situation.

I was born into a family of educators, and so perhaps it came as no surprise that when, as a young seminarian, my vice rector asked me what I thought I'd like my ministry to be as a priest, I said without even giving it much thought, "I think I'd like to teach".

And for nineteen years now, that's what I've been doing - teaching and forming future priests. Academically, my area of specialization has been philosophy. Pastorally, though, my heart has always felt tethered to the ministry of educating the church's future ministers, though parish life, limited as it may be to weekends helping out at nearby parishes, continues to hold a very strong attraction.

My situation is a rather unusual one, some priest-friends even say "anomalous". I am a diocesan priest who has spent practically all nineteen years of his priesthood in both the internal and external forums of seminary formation (as vocations director, dean of men, spiritual director, pastoral and human formation director and director of college seminarians) and in teaching at both Catholic and secular universities.
 
In fact, even before ordination, I was already teaching in seminary, having been asked by my superiors to spend my summer vacations teaching philosophy to collegians.

Back at the now-shuttered American College in Louvain, I was the only student doing his theological studies and completing a doctorate in philosophy while being fully immersed in seminary formation, all at the same time. Post-ordination, I did explore the possibility of joining one of the teaching orders, the Jesuits or the Dominicans perhaps. I also seriously considered joining the Sulpicians.

But when none of these felt like the right fit, I asked my ordinary to be allowed to concentrate fully on teaching and formation. Fortunately, my bishop who was once a seminary formator himself, freed me to pursue and further explore this calling.

It is, from within such family and ministerial background that I have, throughout the past nineteen years as a priest and the previous thirteen as a seminarian, found myself continuously reflecting on the important role friendship plays in education and formation. I grew up seeing my parents not only respected but loved by those they taught.

Also, the most important and enduring learning experiences I've had as a student were with teachers and formators, both priests and laypersons, with whom I felt a connection that transcended, yet at the same time maintained and respected, the teacher-student dynamic.

Finally, as a university professor and seminary formator myself, the colleagues whom I've observed to have the most significantly positive impact on the lives of students are those who - in the words of a very wise laywoman who has taught in various colleges and seminaries for years - "hold their students close to their hearts with one hand while keeping them at a necessary distance with the other".

The first time I heard these words, I admit, I was quite puzzled. I was newly ordained and had just been assigned as a full-time seminary professor and was asking for advice from friends and colleagues.

"Wouldn't that confuse the students?" I asked her. "Not if you keep in mind that they're not really our own", came the even more perplexing reply.

It was to take a number of years in seminary ministry before her meaning became clearer to me.


- End of Part One.

- Part Two: Authentic friendship allows us to transcend that self-seeking love that endangers fairness and gives rise to favoritism. 





[1] St. Augustine, De Catechizandis Rudibus, "The Instruction of the Uninstructed", 17.  
[2] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 23, a.1.
[3] St. Augustine, De Catechizandis Rudibus, 17-19.

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