Teaching Our Faith — Go Forth and Teach

In this installment of the series of teaching editorials, I would like to reflect on the priest as teacher.

The scene could hardly be more dramatic as the reader is about to encounter Jesus for the last time in the Gospel of Matthew. Christ stands on a mountaintop and gives his followers and friends a mandate to go forth and teach (Mt. 28:19-20).

Throughout his ministry, Jesus himself is often called by the title of rabbi and teacher. St. Peter calls him so (Mk. 9.5) as does Nicodemus (Jn. 3.2). Mary of Magdala, one of the first to witness Jesus after the Resurrection, even calls him “Rabbuni” or great teacher (Jn. 20.16). And Jesus himself announces to his disciples at the Last Supper: “You address me as teacher and Lord, and fittingly enough, for that is what I am” (Jn. 13.13). Indeed, many of the world religious traditions revere wisdom and the teaching tradition.

Clearly, all Christians are called to be Christ-like, and thus in their own best way, teachers. They may well be teaching by their example, their compassion, their thoughtfulness. But some are surely meant to be religious teachers, word-wenders, men and women who render the word — which comes to us in Scripture, tradition, sacrament, great-hearted persons, and so many other ways — into lively and effective words for our own time.

One of the last papal acts of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was to name St. Hildegarde of Bingen, herself a writer and teacher, as a Doctor of the Church. Indeed, the last three popes, including Pope Francis, all had been teachers or professors early in their careers.

The Catholic tradition has been deeply imbued with a reverence for scholarship and teaching, not just in religion, but across a curriculum of fields and topics and along the full range of studies from elementary to advanced and professional. The Catholic instinct is incarnational, insisting that grace builds on nature and that nature is a worthy ground of God’s encounter with the human. Put another way, the Second Vatican Council asserts that “nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo” in the Christian heart (Gaudium et Spes).

This deep Catholic instinct was extraordinarily in evidence in early Kentucky Catholicism. By the 1820s, all the communities of religious women founded in this area had schools and academies in operation on this American frontier. The Diocese of Bardstown — with perhaps more zeal than sagacious planning — in those same years had founded two colleges, St. Joseph and St. Mary. Significantly, this was a full generation before New York and the northeastern states would get even their first Catholic institution of higher learning, which was Fordham University in 1841.

Coming out of this double cauldron of Catholicism — in general and Kentucky Catholicism in particular — I was not surprised to find myself gravitating toward a career that joined being a priest with being a professor. Being educated in Catholic schools myself in the 1950s, studying under the Sisters of Mercy and the Xaverian Brothers, I learned not only the words and lessons of the Bible and the subsequent history of Christianity. I was not only introduced to the call of the Gospel as it speaks to this time and this place. I also was surrounded by teachers who exemplified the call in their competency, kindness and commitment. I learned early lessons about toleration, compassion, openness to questioning and respect for evidence. I also learned about diversity and social justice well before the Second Vatican Council began.

Continuing my education at Bellarmine and later at Fordham in the 1960s, I again encountered dedicated teachers — lay and religious, female and male. These were professional leaders who were not just of one race or religious tradition. They lectured. They wrote. They served their community and world. They taught me that the best of teachers must always themselves be the best of listeners, the best of learners. They embodied, each in their own unique way, the description given by Pope John Paul II in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, for the Catholic university. It should be, he wrote, “distinguished by its free search for the whole truth about nature, man and God” and maintain “the priority of the ethical over the technical … of the person over things.”

Having seen these teachers over all those years of education, I wanted to — as best I could — go and do likewise. Some 7,000 students later, I am more than grateful that the opportunity and grace was given me.

Rev. Clyde F. Crews
Professor Emeritus/Historian
Bellarmine University

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