Wake up the World – Some Challenges Facing Faith Formators Today
Fr Christopher Gleeson SJ, Provincial Delegate for Education and Mission Formation
A presentation to the Marist Faith Formators’ Colloquium at Mittagong on 24 March 2014
Like many of you at this Marist Colloquium, I am sure, I have been fascinated by the addresses and homilies of Pope Francis SJ since his election just twelve months ago. What an impact he has had right across the globe! His language has a freshness of challenge about it, flowing straight from his heart, and I want to use some of his words as a platform for my talk this morning.
In late November last year, the Pope had a three-hour conversation with the Union of Superiors General of religious men who questioned the Pope especially about the identity and the mission of religious: “What do you expect of consecrated life? What do you ask of us? If you were in our place what would you do to respond to your call to go to the frontiers, to live the Gospel sine glossa, evangelical prophecy? What should we hear you calling us to do?” And further: “What should be emphasized today? What are the priorities?”
Without a written text, the Pope’s interaction with these Church leaders contained some wonderful lines. For example, “The Church grows by witness, not by proselytism. The witness that can really attract is that associated with attitudes which are uncommon: generosity, detachment, sacrifice, self-forgetfulness in order to care for others. This is the witness, the “martyrdom” of religious life. It “sounds an alarm” for people.
“The Church must be attractive. Wake up the world. Be witnesses of a different way of doing things, of acting, of living.”
I was particularly interested, however, by the following challenge: “I am convinced of one thing: the great changes in history were realized when reality was seen not from the centre but rather from the periphery. …This is really very important to me: the need to become acquainted with reality by experience, to spend time walking on the periphery in order really to become acquainted with the reality and life-experiences of people. If this does not happen we then run the risk of being abstract ideologists or fundamentalists, which is not healthy. ….It is the most concrete way of imitating Jesus, who went toward all the peripheries. Jesus went to all, really all. I would not really feel uncomfortable going to the periphery: you should not feel uncomfortable in reaching out to anyone.”
Pope Francis’ talk about the need to go to the periphery, to the edge, in order to see life more fully, reminded me of the challenge extended to the Jesuits by the previous Pope Benedict in early 2008 during our 35th General Congregation. Benedict challenged the Society of Jesus to go to the frontiers – to travel to those “geographical and spiritual places where others do not reach or find it difficult to reach.” In October 2010, our own Frank Brennan was accompanying his friend Kevin Rudd during the events celebrating the canonization of St. Mary MacKillop in Rome. The then Foreign Minister asked Frank whether he could arrange a meeting for him with the Jesuit General, Father Alfonso Nicolas, ‘Nico’ as he likes to be known among Jesuits. This was duly organized, and Mr. Rudd questioned Father General about what he saw as the greatest challenge facing the Jesuits today. Father Nico without hesitation answered: “The globalization of superficiality.”
In July 2009, on the occasion celebrating 150 years of Jesuit education in the Philippines, Father Nicolas spoke of two of those places, those frontiers, those peripheries as ‘the frontier of depth’ and ‘the frontier of universality.’ Both frontiers remain relevant to faith formatores five years on today. Taking the example of Jesus in the Gospels, he noted that Jesus always responded in depth. Look at any healing story: the way Jesus heals the paralyzed man brought in by his friends through the roof; the leper; the woman with the issue of blood. Jesus first responds to a concrete, immediate need: the healing of a sickness. But then he goes on to respond to a deeper need: the burden of guilt or the sense of hopelessness or rejection and isolation. Finally, he goes deeper still and offers what they long for most, often without knowing it: the gift of the Kingdom of God, of friendship with a God of unconditional love, in a way that transforms them at the core of their persons.”
In an effort to evaluate the depth of the education we provide, Father General asked four questions:
How deeply do we respond to our students’ needs? If our instruction is good and up-to-date, then we respond to their need for forming and developing their talents. But beyond that are deeper needs. And how do we respond to their deepest hungers for meaning and purpose, for strength andhope that is the Kingdom of God experienced in their lives?
How deeply do we help them see? How can we help them see more deeply, to truly see the real beyond the virtual, to see beyond these images that make false promises so that they can see the face of the hidden humanity of the poor in a way that moves them to want to serve in compassion?
How deeply do we invite them to think? When I look around and see so much fundamentalism and fanaticism around the world, and the suffering that these escapes from sober thinking have produced, I wonder whether we have to think more creatively of how we can ensure that our students learn how to think deeply?
How deeply do we form their inner persons, their commitments and convictions, their faith and their strength? As the external supports become weaker, then the inside must become stronger. Depth of knowledge and, even more important, depth of experience, must mature into a depth of conviction that is able to remain peaceful and steadfast even in a confusing and hostile world.
In the end, the test of whether our education is one of depth, is whether we are able to produce people who can “decide from inside” – which is another way of saying, the test of our education as Jesuit (and Marist) education is if we are able to produce people of discernment.
In terms of the frontier of universality, I heard a Rockhampton priest say at a recent conference in Mackay: “Would that our Australian shores were as welcoming as they are protected!” Father Nicolas asked these four questions of Jesuit educators in the Philippines:
First, do our students, as a result of their time with us, end up with a broader sense of belonging and responsibility than their own families, classes, clans? Are we forming men and women for others and with others-men and women whose hearts have been universalized and broadened, so they feel this compassion for the poor and the suffering who are not members of their blood family, but who are now part of their larger human family?
Second, with regard to the schools themselves, can we break out of our narrow sense of belonging to this particular school? More and more, the schools cannot live in indifference to and competition against one another, but rather address their many common concerns together?
Third, can we break out of our particular school system and serve those outside the Jesuit system in the Philippines (read Australia)?
Fourth, can we break out of our concern for the Philippines (read Australia) and start thinking of how more we can serve the wider world of Asia around us? What of the other poorer nations and less established Jesuit missions in East Asia? Can the Jesuit educational system in the Philippines (read Australia) reach out to serve and share with East Timor, Myanmar, Cambodia, to name just a few possible places where the needs for what you can share are great?
Changing tack for a moment, I think one of our greatest challenges as faith formators is to be grace-namers for those in our care. The great and often misunderstood Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, had this beautiful prayer:
Lord, help me see the world
with the same beauty it had
when it tumbled from your
Help me see that nothing here below is profane.
On the contrary, everything is
Daniel O’Leary, in his book Begin With the Heart, says this so well: “The work of evangelizing and catechizing is about naming the place of grace for our young and older students.”
In recent months I have been involved in a project that is seeking to write a new document for Jesuit Education across the globe. The last attempt in 1993 on Ignatian Pedagogy and Spirituality is now twenty years old and the world has changed dramatically since then. It is meant to respond to the current challenges facing society and give educators a sense that they are part of a much bigger mission, and not just people who are transmitting knowledge.
When late last year I shared an early collation of responses and challenges sent to me from Jesuit schools in our Asia Pacific region, one experienced Jesuit educator wisely wrote back to me saying that we needed another chapter on ‘the good news about the contemporary world.’ In other words, discernment should begin with acknowledging our blessings, scanning contemporary experience to see what can be celebrated as surely good. “Recognizing this good enables us, gives us the confidence to increase it….Only then are we in the correct position to discern what can now be seen as clearly bad and what remains as ambiguous i.e. it looks bad but might be good, or looks good but might be bad.” In other words, he was asking us to look at our world as a grace place before we named its deficiencies and challenges.
Let us take the technological revolution – or should we say the technological ‘evolution’. We can worry about the bad effects of this digital age, but we can also see it in the way my learned Jesuit colleague describes it as “today what the print revolution was to the time of the Renaissance and Reformation, i.e. a major contributing cause to their happening.” All of us educators are “challenged to be leaders in the way technology transforms the classroom, pastoral care, social action, administrative structure, liturgies etc.; and we give thanks for the ways in which this is already the case.”
In terms of globalization, “many of us meet at airports…where the local city becomes linked to the global and global lands in a specific location…Air terminals are the railway stations of our time, indeed the cathedrals. Aren’t they wonderful? God loves them.”
In early December last year, when returning from Auckland, I stopped at the Tullamarine airport’s duty-free shop to purchase some spiritual sustenance for my Xavier Jesuit community. After discerning what spirit was most appropriate for my abstemious brethren, I went to the counter to pay for it. The young lady in attendance there greeted me with the question: “Are you in transition, sir?” “Yes,” was my reply, “aren’t we all?”
Ours is the age of transition, the age of the backpacker – sometimes a pilgrim, more often a tourist. Perhaps we should see globalization as offering far more opportunities than terrors?
If ‘connection’ is one of the buzz words of our time, and prayer is a ritual of connection as cartoonist Michael Leunig describes it, how do our liturgies connect people with their God? After all, the word liturgy is linked with the word ‘ligament’.
One of the best writers on matters religious in my experience is Kathleen Norris, an American Presbyterian, who has penned much of her excellent work as a guest in Benedictine monasteries. Throughout her writings she reminds us that religion etymologically “is linked to the words ligature and ligament, words having both negative and positive connotations, offering both bondage and freedom of movement.” (Dakota, p.133) This is similar to what Richard Holloway, the retired Bishop of Edinburgh, said in a Radio National ‘Encounter’ program some years ago. He related the story of the British playwright, Dennis Potter, who was dying of cancer and was asked in a television interview whether his imminent death had brought a new religious intensity or a recovery of boyhood faith. Potter’s reply was: “Religion to me has always been the wound, not the bandage.” (“Inns on Roads”, Radio National Encounter, 23.12.2001)
When religion focuses exclusively on orthodoxy and doctrinal formulation, it can so easily become the bandage, the ligature. “Christianity”, Kathleen Norris affirms, “is at its worst when it becomes defensive. Often, enshrining orthodoxy into words has caused more trouble, more pain, more evil in the world than it was worth.” (Amazing Grace, p.222) The easy answers of religious fundamentalism “are about control more than grace.” (Dakota, p.95)
Understood correctly, religion should be about connection, about the ligament. It is worth recalling that the word ‘belief’ means simply ‘to give one’s heart to.’ In recent times, however, the term has been impoverished by taking on the narrow intellectual meaning of a head-over-heart assent. (Amazing Grace, p.62) For Kathleen Norris, however, it is important to view religion as connection. She relates how she begins to appreciate religious belief “as a relationship, like a deep friendship, or a marriage, something that I could plunge into, not knowing exactly what I was doing or what would be demanded of me in the long run.” (Amazing Grace, p.66) That is why she can see all the events of her life, large or small, leading and connecting her to God.
All experience is mediated through culture, principally through language, and increasingly today through narrative and story. Such was the experience of the early Church through its gospel stories. In other words, the Incarnation has taught us to be pro-cultural as well as counter-cultural. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”, Jesuit poet Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote so beautifully.
Finally, I want to return to those two frontiers of depth and universality and make the obvious point that we faith formators need to be people of depth and universal perspectives if we are to be effective companions to others, people of ‘nearness and proximity’ as Pope Francis has described it. “The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.” (Interview with Antonio Spadaro SJ, September 30, 2013).
In a line that I often use with teachers, Richard Rohr OFM captures this need for interior depth so well: “You can only transform people to the degree that you have been transformed. You can only lead others as far as you yourself have gone. You have no ability to communicate to another person that they are good or special until you know it strongly yourself…. Rohr, Things Hidden- Scripture as Spirituality, p.44. Put more simply, “You lead others to the depth to which you have been led…you can only transform people to the degree you have been transformed.”
For those accompanying young people, Pope Francis had this to say: ““Those who work with youth cannot be content with simply saying things that are too tidy and structured, as in a tract; these things go in one ear and out the other of young people. We need a new language, a new way of saying things. Today God asks this of us: to leave the nest which encloses us in order to be sent.” In the words of our own Father General of the Jesuits, we need to accompany young people in the water if we are to teach them how to swim. They have very good hearing in the water, but not on dry land. In the past, Christianity has been strong on ‘what’, but very weak on the ‘how’. Our challenge as faith formatores is to show people how to get in touch with their hearts, how to discern and make decisions, how to pray and meditate.
To be effective companions for others in our faith formation ministry, we need look no further than Jesus in his walk to Emmaus with those two slow learners in Luke 24. He walks with them on the road; he listens to their story; like any good teacher, he gives meaning to their little story by placing it within the framework of the big story of salvation; he knows when to move on and leave them free; when invited, he blesses and breaks bread with them; he sends them back to their community with fire in their bellies and with renewed hope. Of this wonderful Emmaus episode, Michael Paul Gallagher SJ comments that “the relationship is more important than the content of one’s communication, and, more negatively, …argument and condescending advice are counter-productive in any contact with unbelievers.” (Struggles of Faith, 1991, p.64)
To summarise, I have dwelt on three principal challenges for our faith formators today: to go with Jesus to the peripheries, the frontiers, for proper perspective on our world; to take seriously the Incarnation and be grace-namers for the people in our care, helping them in Daniel O’Leary’s words to identify “God’s signature on everything around us, to see God’s face behind every face, to discover the lover-God who comes to us disguised as our lives.”(O’Leary, Begin With the Heart p.22); finally, to be true companions with others, leading them from the depth we have discovered in our own hearts and minds to discover the depth that is God in their hearts and minds.
“To see Thee is the end and the beginning,
Thou carriest us, and Thou dost go before,
Thou art the journey and the journey’s end.”
Fr Christopher Gleeson SJ, Provincial Delegate for Education and Mission Formation
Amongst his other important work, Fr Chris Gleeson SJ is the Patron of Dialogue Australasia Network.