Transmitting the Catholic Faith: The Vocation of a High School Religion Teacher
To teach the Catholic faith, on any level, is a calling from God, a calling that requires our generous response. To teach the Catholic faith is also a tremendous privilege for we are being asked to transmit to the students we teach the sublime truths revealed by God Himself, truths that define the very meaning of human life, truths that are necessary for man’s salvation. In his critically important Apostolic Exhortation, “Catechesi Tradendae” (“Catechesis in Our Time”), Pope John Paul II reminds us that the primary and essential object of catechesis is “to reveal in the Person of Christ the whole of God’s eternal design reaching fulfillment in that Person. It is to seek to understand the meaning of Christ’s actions and words and of the signs worked by Him, for they simultaneously hide and reveal His mystery. Accordingly, the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ: only He can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity”.
In other words, all authentic catechesis is Christocentric: whoever teaches the Catholic faith is not transmitting their own teaching or the teaching of some other master but the teaching of Jesus Christ Himself. Our Lord not only teaches the Truth His Father sent Him into the world to teach, He is the Truth sent by God for the salvation of the world. All catechists, therefore, have the grave responsibility to teach what Christ taught and to teach what the Incarnate Son of God continues to teach through the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.
As a teacher of the Catholic faith to high school students, I have always taken as my motto the beautiful words of Our Lord in St.John’s gospel: “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (8:31-32).” All human beings want freedom but authentic freedom is a gift from God and it can only be found in Christ Who is the Truth. This is the essential message of Jesus in the gospels. He has become man, He has taken on our human nature, in order to liberate us from sin and to give us the true freedom for which we were created: freedom found in communion with an infinitely loving God.
To be an effective teacher of the Catholic faith it is essential that the person have a comprehensive knowledge of the teachings of the Church and a desire to continue studying and more deeply understanding those teachings. The Church’s deposit of faith is so immensely rich and vast that many lifetimes could be spent studying and reflecting upon it. A good teacher of any discipline is always a student of that discipline, always working to know more about what he teaches. If that is true of secular disciplines how much more should this be true of the sacred science of theology. The most important discipline a person can study is theology because it is the study of God Himself. The profoundest and most challenging questions students ask are often of a theological nature. A competent teacher must be prepared, through proper study, to answer virtually any questions students may raise. The answers provided for those questions can sometimes have life-changing consequences for the students who ask them.
It should go without saying that any person who is called to the vocation of teaching the Catholic faith must always teach Church doctrine according to the mind of Christ and the Magisterium of the Church He has established. Anyone who dissents from Catholic doctrine should have the intellectual honesty not to be teaching the faith. Loyalty to the Magisterium is an absolute necessity for any person on any level who teaches the Catholic faith. Parents should expect and demand that the religion taught at a Catholic school is always sound and orthodox. Anything less should never be tolerated.
A person called to teach the Catholic faith must also be steeped in prayer. What is needed in the Church today is what one prominent theologian called “a kneeling theology.” It is not enough to know the faith well, essential as that is. One must be striving to live what one believes and that cannot be done unless one prays often and well. If participation at daily Mass is the single most important activity of any Catholic, this is especially true for the Catholic religion teacher. Next to the Mass, frequent, if not daily, visits to the Blessed Sacrament are indispensable. If a teacher is to teach Christ he must be deeply in love with the Person he teaches. Eucharistic adoration is an invaluable, spiritually powerful way to grow in the love of Christ. Our late beloved John Paul II used to say that even a few minutes in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is of more spiritual benefit than many prayers not prayed in the presence of the Real Presence.
Over the years, the teenage students to whom I have taught the Catholic faith have taught me many things. They have taught me that young people have a great hunger for the truth and that they are open to the beautiful truths taught by the Catholic Church. They have shown me that despite having lived their entire lives in “a culture of death,” most young people have a profound reverence for the sanctity of human life and are courageous defenders of the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. Young people want to be challenged to live their Catholic faith. They have also demonstrated that they want to commit their lives to Someone who can give their lives permanent, indeed, eternal meaning. Most of all, these adolescents have shown me they want much more than “head knowledge” of Christ. They want to know Christ in the depths of their hearts. They seek the Face of God and find Him in the Face of Jesus.
Pope John Paul II, when he spoke to youth, often referred to the gospel story of the rich young man, a man who came to Jesus seeking to know how to gain eternal life. This gospel story is one nearly every young person can identify with. For they, too, are seeking the truth about life, they, too, want to know the way to experience eternal happiness. It is the responsibility of those who teach our young people their Catholic faith to show them the way to Jesus, to show them that, like the rich young man in the gospels, Jesus looks upon all them with love and desires to give them the divine love that flows eternally from His Sacred Heart.
If there is one thing the Catholic religion teacher must never neglect to do it is to pray daily for his students, especially those students most resistant or indifferent to the faith. The prayers said for those we teach most surely touch the Heart of God and bring forth His graces to those most in need of them.
I have often told my high school religion students that it is my vocation to teach them what the Catholic Church teaches and that I will be held accountable before God if I fail to teach them the fullness of the truth. However, I tell them, while my responsibility is to teach them the truth, they have the responsibility to live what they are taught. God will hold them responsible if, knowing the truth, they fail to live what they have received. The teacher of the Catholic faith must consistently teach the eternal truth of the gospel, and teach with love .The rest is in the hands of God.
One of man’s deepest needs is the need for identity: to know who we are. This is an especially important need for our young people. Perhaps the greatest truth religion teachers can convey to their students is that man’s true and authentic identity can only be found in God. One of wisest and profoundest spiritual writers of our time, Jacques Philippe, in his amazing book, Interior Freedom, summarizes in deeply moving words where all human persons will discover their true identity:
“Human beings are more than the sum of the good they can accomplish. They are children of God, whether they do good or cannot yet manage to do anything. Our Father in heaven does not love us because of the good we do. He loves us for ourselves, because he has adopted us as his children forever.
This is why humility, spiritual poverty, is so precious: it locates our identity securely in the one place where is will be safe from all harm. If our treasure is in God, no one can take it from us. Humility is truth. I am what I am in God’s eyes: a poor child who possesses absolutely nothing, who receives everything, infinitely loved and totally free. I have received everything in advance from the freely bestowed love of my Father, who said to me definitively: ‘All that is mine is yours’.
Our treasure is not the kind that moths or worms can devour. It is in heaven in God’s hands. It depends on God alone, his good will and unfailing goodness to us. Our identity has its source in the creative love of God, who made us in his own image and destines us to live with him forever.”
Submitted by : Frederick Blonigen
St.Agnes High School