Merciful Teaching

January 28, 2015

On Tuesday, January 27, 2015, the Catholic University of America and Dominican House of Studies, in association with the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), celebrated National Catholic Schools Week at the annual Mass in honor of St. Thomas Aquinas in the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.  The Very Rev. Ken Letoile, O.P., Prior Provincial of the Province of St. Joseph was the principal celebrant and delivered the following homily. Jesus calls us together today on the occasion of this beautiful annual liturgy to honor St. Thomas Aquinas, patron saint of this university and of all Catholic schools, at the start of this semester and this new year. We come together during this Year of Consecrated Life when Pope Francis has invited all religious men and women to re-appropriate their call to “Wake Up the World” with their witness to the transformational and merciful love revealed in Jesus Christ. We know that “Mercy” is a key theme in the preaching and teaching of our Holy Father. So let us imagine St Thomas Aquinas inviting us to follow his example and to realize our call, religious, ordained and laity alike to be “Merciful Teachers who wake up the world.” Indeed, St. Thomas has much to tell us about mercy and teaching. FrKen_AquinasMassSt. Thomas sees “mercy” as a virtue that flows from the theological virtue of charity. He says that “of all the virtues that have to do with our neighbor… mercy is the greatest… For to relieve the wants of another is, as such, the function of someone higher.” Someone higher! God is the higher one who is mercy and merciful to us. When we are living in charity — living by grace and united to God in the love he pours into our hearts — we are also inspired to be merciful to others. And this is how God in his great providence has willed to extend his love into the world. The mercy we practice spreads God’s love in a special way through us, through our good deeds. Mercy salts and lights the world with God’s presence, with his love, with his goodness. Indeed, for St. Thomas, it is a sign of God’s incredible goodness that he allows us — US! — to be agents of mercy and goodness in the lives others, that he wills for us to carry his love and his perfection to others so that we might be ever more like God, and so be instruments in the flourishing of our neighbors. And when they flourish, so will we. As Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, for mercy shall be theirs.” So it should not be surprising that St Thomas thinks teaching is an profound spiritual work of mercy: “Instructing the ignorant.” When he does so he combines two works of mercy into one word. “Counseling the afflicted” and “instructing the ignorant” are combined into the one word: consuele (counsel). St. Thomas is touching on something profoundly important and true: the teachers who stand out in our experience, the ones who we remember and mattered the most to us, they’re the ones who demanded the most of themselves in their teaching, in their scholarship, in their own lives before God. And they demanded the most of us, as they called forth from us — the root meaning of the word educate — they called forth our best work. When those teachers taught us, they formed us in the truth. They were merciful to us, because we are made to know the truth and to rejoice in it. We are not meant to be ignorant. And when we were afflicted, the best of our teachers were always merciful. The way they spoke, the way they carried themselves, the way they moved in the classroom and in the halls, we knew that they were available to us outside of the classroom to move beyond the course and their subject matter to the deeper things of life that troubled us. We remember with gratitude all of those high school teachers who were not only teachers but counselors during our many extra-curricular activities. We are grateful for those well-published professors as well as those struggling for tenure that nonetheless seemingly without effort often found the time to guide us both in our academic needs and in our personal concerns. Isn’t it this combination — academic excellence and personal interest — that awakens every student to a potential that realizes he or she is indeed fashioned in God’s image and likeness. Receiving the gift of mercy from a teacher, every student begins to learn what mercy is and how to give it to others. Certainly St. Thomas experienced that grace through his great teacher, St. Albert the Great — a teacher who saw in his shy student what none of Aquinas’s others teachers and none of his classmates could see: a gifted genius in love with the Lord, who would, one day, teach the world about the mysteries of the Christian faith. St. Thomas touches on the deep significance of teaching with mercy in his commentary on the Apostles Creed. Speaking about the process of coming to believe, he says: “It is impossible to live without trusting in the experience of others, wherever one’s own knowledge falls short.” It’s a simple point that we can accept easily. We often trust the learning of those who know more than us just to live our lives each day. Who knows how an elevator really works? I don’t. Who knows how the D.C. metro works, when it works? I don’t. Who knows what God has revealed unless we trust in those to whom he has revealed himself? Teaching with mercy opens the heart of the student who desires to know and opens the heart at the deepest level to encounter the God of mercy revealed in Jesus Christ, who has revealed himself to be known and to be loved. Every teacher here, and hopefully every teacher who sees their vocation through the eyes of faith desires to teach in this way — to bring every student to the truth, and so closer to Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And we know that this is a grace that flows from Jesus Christ who sends us forth to teach and to preach. One of my revered Dominican teachers once told us that before he entered the classroom he would pray for grace he needed to love the students he was about to teach. In the words of today’s first reading,” I pleaded and the spirit of wisdom came to me.” That’s the humility that is key to our call to be merciful teachers. Teachers, who through the imitation and example of St. Thomas are called to wake up the world as teachers in word and in deed of the redeeming love and mercy of Jesus Christ. May St. Thomas Aquinas intercede for us, for all teachers, and students, that God might grant us growth in charity, and so grant us an abundance of mercy, that in our teaching, we might lead others to their flourishing in Him who is our joy.   ✠

Image: Sandro Botticelli, St. Thomas Aquinas.  15th c.  Abegg Stiftung, Riggisberg, Switzerland.

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