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.

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