Monday, September 27, 2010

The Priest as Teacher: Prophet and Shepherd (Reflections on the Feast of Saint Vincent de Paul)

A good and effective educator is not the one who constantly gives his students a hard time, who makes his lessons close to incomprehensible and puts insurmountable hurdles on their way in order to constantly prove to them that they know nothing, and he alone knows all.
Instead, it is the teacher who knows that his job is to open his students’ minds to the recognition of what at times can be difficult truths, to help them understand and digest such truths as best they can, and to challenge them when they seem not to live up to the expectations, which the process of the unfolding of truth demands of them.

A good educator must therefore do a constant balancing act between challenging his students to excel and maximize their potential—which of course will occasionally involve being strict, demanding, and even difficult—and being encouraging to those who might encounter difficulty in digesting the lesson, as well as compassionate to those who may eventually fail.

A teacher thus exercises the twin roles of prophet and pastor or shepherd, the first demands that he challenge those he teaches to reach the highest possible standards of learning and character development, the second, that he have a heart big enough to never stop encouraging those who sometimes fail, and to forgive and continue to love those who eventually go astray.

A good priest is not much different from a good teacher. He also has to keep a good balance between challenging those under his leadership and care, to achieve their full potential not only as persons, but as Christians. This means that there will be times when he will have to speak what is ‘difficult’ or ‘hard’ to say, what is unpopular and perhaps undesirable in the eyes of his flock.
He will have to articulate clearly and with fidelity, the teachings of the church, the demands of the Gospel, and the requirements of discipleship. And he must be afraid neither of being unpopular nor of being misunderstood. As a prophet, a priest exercising his leadership role must always “speak the truth in love”.

But he must also never lose sight of the fact that he is also a pastor, a shepherd, a healer and ‘doctor of souls’, tasked by Christ himself to “tend and feed his sheep”. This asks of a priest that he have a huge and perhaps overflowing store of kindness and compassion. There is no worse witness to the Gospel of Christ than a harsh, overly-demanding, and unforgiving, priest. One would be better off “tying a millstone around his neck”, than to live his ministry like one of those Jesus himself criticized for laying heavy burdens they themselves would not carry.

Demand and challenge on the one hand, compassion and mercy on the other—to bring these two into a healthy and life-giving tension is the constant challenge for a priest. This reminds me of what one of my good seminary professors told me many years ago. “When one day you become a priest”, she said, “or are assigned to teach, remember to pull your students to you with one hand, and keep them at bay with the other. Be kind and loving, but let them know that you expect nothing but the best from them, and keep your word”.
The model of the good teacher and the good priest remains Jesus himself who invited, challenged, demanded, pronounced woe, and warned of misfortune if people persisted in their hardness of heart, but who also displayed boundless compassion for the tax collector, the prostitute, the gentile, the Samaritan woman, and who was himself condemned for associating with the outcasts and sinners of his day.

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