Welcome to Fr. Matt Henry of Ss. Simon & Jude & Bourgade Catholic High School, as he makes his first appearance on the CP blog. Fr. Matt and I will together address questions & issues that come up in his work as a priest and chaplain and my work as a Theology teacher. The format is simple: A question is posed, one which we have each encountered in one form or another, and is followed by a response, then a response to that response, and a concluding comment. The first question we tackle reflects concerns that some parents express when sending their children to Catholic schools.
QUESTION: “I am a parent thinking of sending my son to a Catholic high school. The school we have in mind has an excellent reputation for academics & student life, & the son of a friend of ours, who is now a Junior, has loved it there from his first day. But our family is not Catholic. We are Muslims & are concerned that our son will not fit in. Especially because he will have to take 4 years of Catholic Theology classes. While we want our son to have a broad education, we are not interested in having him proselytized or preached to.”
FR. MATT: This question gets to the heart of the our understanding of Catholic Identity, a word that is often used though seldom understood. Christ gave His disciples the command to baptize and to teach, spreading the Good News of the Kingdom of God to every nation, as our Scripture affirms in the Gospel of Matthew. A Catholic school is an attempt to fulfill this command. In our Catholic Theology classes, then, the reasons for faith are proposed and taught to every student. The inner “logic” of the Catholic Faith comes out in two ways: 1) the demonstration that faith in itself is reasonable, open to being verified by that ability to know that every person possesses; 2) the coherence and connection of these truths of faith to each other, and to every area of human knowledge.
Our approach, then, to teaching the Catholic Faith is one that respects the student as a whole person. It is not divorced from reason, which is common to all of us. It also completely respects the freedom of each student. We do not wish to proselytize or preach to anyone, especially as those words have a connotation of something that is forced. A faith that was forced, and accepted through coercion would not be a faith that respects who we are as human beings. We do not want any of our students, whether Catholic, Christian, or non-Christian, to come to faith in this way; this is not true faith.
Let me quote the words of Pope Benedict XVI, addressed to the Catholic bishops of Central Asia, a region that is largely Muslim: ”I feel it is helpful to reaffirm that the Church does not impose but rather freely proposes the Catholic faith, well aware that conversion is the mysterious fruit of the Holy Spirit’s action. Faith is a gift and the work of God. For this very reason every type of proselytism that forces, induces or entices someone to embrace the faith by unworthy devices is strictly forbidden.”
Saint Paul wrote in the Letter to the Galatians, “For freedom, Christ has set us free.” Rest assured, you will not find any “unworthy devices” here at our school. I hope that you will find in our school an environment of reason, freedom, and deep respect. If we provide these for every students, we are truly being faithful to our Catholic Identity. We welcome you to our school.
TONY: “(T)he Church does not impose but rather freely proposes the Catholic faith”: This statement by Pope Benedict XVI is important for the reasons Fr. Matt says in his response. I would only add that, as representatives of the Church, we propose this faith in our schools because the Church “ever must proclaim Christ ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself” (Nostra Aetate). This is our mission, and the core of our identity. No doubt some parents and students will have concerns about this mission, as well as how we connect our truth to every area of human knowledge. When done badly, we all look silly. But some will also be concerned when we profess that Christ is Lord, that Caesar deserves only what belongs to him, that Christ calls all of us to take up our cross and deny ourselves. And some will be concerned that we believe in truth at all, seeing this conviction as a threat to openness, tolerance, diversity, and all the other things many of our contemporaries bend their knee and build their altar to.
We can not control how people, of different faiths and no faith, respond to our convictions. We must, however, be honest and forthright about them and our commitment to Christ and his Church. This will include teaching our faith prudently and charitably, being all things to all men, as St. Paul said, and being well aware of the social world we inhabit. In our day a false view of tolerance clouds the minds of many, and it is our duty to make as clear as possible that genuine tolerance is rooted in the virtues of charity and justice, both of which prevent us from the indifference that often passes for tolerance. To be tolerant of Muslim students is to take their faith seriously, and to encourage them to take the faith of the Church seriously. That is, seriously enough to understand that we are making truth claims, that truth matters, and that we need not hide from this fact.
I would lay heavy stress on the virtues the Catholic teacher and chaplain must bear witness to in order to be an effective disciple and teacher. This witness does not always require words, denials, clarifications, lectures, etc. Often the very best lesson we can give to students is to listen sympathetically, not be threatened by disagreement and misunderstanding, and not give in to the temptation to use verbal forms of violence to demonstrate that we are smarter than they are. When teachers become sarcastic, snarky and defensive, we lose credibility. The last word, after all, is not ours, but Christ’s. “Let me trust in the power and constancy of your Word, and not in the cleverness and multiplication of my own” is a good prayer to pray often. This trust, when consistently demonstrated in the classroom by a teacher devoted to Christ, the Church, and his students, should encourage students to engage the material in their Theology class and ease the fears of their parents.
FR. MATT: The phrase that Christ must always be proposed but never imposes serves as a method for the Catholic teachers handing on of the faith, a method and an attitude that respects the reason and freedom of the student. The phrase “Christ must always be proposed”, though, stands on its own as the truth of the mission the Church has received from Christ. It is not a choice between proposing or not proposing Christ. The Church exists to evangelize, as the last three popes have taught.
The Gospel shines forth from the lives of those who propose Christ, then, through the evidence of the human advantage of faith. Christ makes people that are like this. In this context, I think of one of the myriad stories associated with Mother Teresa, about the dying man who said, “I do not know Christ, but I hope He is like you.” The human advantage of faith is something public, is something that cannot be helped, is something that first grasps one who will come to the faith. The teacher is listened to not first because of his or her words, but because of the difference that faith makes, that is, because he is a witness.
The Christian proposal that is the reason for a Catholic school does not only depend on the integrity of faith and the witness of the Theology teacher. The difference that Christ makes must be evident in the rest of the subjects taught. I am not proposing that the loaves and the fishes be used as an example of multiplication in the Math class. Here is the silly version of Catholic Identity, which is sometimes proposed as the real thing. No! Rather, the human advantage of faith comes out in the way the teacher is in front of everything: through wonder, through professionalism, through fidelity to what really is, over and above ideology. Romano Guardini said, “In the experience of a great love, everything comes together; in the “I-thou experience everything that happens becomes an event within that relationship.” Multo magis for those who have experienced the great love of Christ! When everything comes together, when everything that happens becomes an event with the relationship with Christ, everything, then we are within the Catholic environment, then our school becomes an open space, a space of freedom, a space of true humanity. Utinam sit!Share on Facebook