Pope Francis is a master teacher for today’s world. He has a knack for summing up sagacious teachings in 140 characters or less, he organizes the main ideas of his homilies and teachings in groups of three to make them easy to follow and to remember, and he gets the attention of his “students” by living Christ’s message in an exceedingly radical way. Who better to look to, then, as a model for effectively teaching the Catholic faith?
I’ve spent the last few days poring over Evangelii Gaudium and frankly I have been overwhelmed by the magnitude of this apostolic exhortation. As someone who teaches about the Church and the Gospels and morality for a living, I felt incredibly humbled and challenged by The Joy of the Gospel. I decided to take a page out of the Pope’s playbook and to try to summarize three key lessons about teaching that I gleaned from The Joy of the Gospel.
Lesson #1: Be a joyful messenger
“As for the moral component of catechesis, which promotes growth in fidelity to the Gospel way of life, it is helpful to stress again and again the attractiveness and the ideal of a life of wisdom, self-fulfillment, and enrichment. In the light of that positive message, our rejection of the evils which endanger that life can be better understood. Rather than experts in dire predictions, dour judges bent on rooting out every threat and deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel.” (168, emphasis added)
As I read this paragraph, the phrase “joyful messenger” played repeatedly in my mind. A messenger I am, on a good day, but a joyful one? Am I a joyful messenger? Admittedly, mainstream culture makes it difficult to pitch the Catholic lifestyle as an “attractive” one. Don’t get me wrong, I love being Catholic, but the Catholic faith is so radically counter-cultural that at times even my own family members look at me like I’m crazy. There are many days when I feel discouraged and run-down by the struggle for religious liberty, the seeming complacency with regard to respect for human life and human dignity, and stories of horrific poverty and war. Some days I find myself explaining a particular teaching or doctrine almost reluctantly, apologetically.
In spite of it all, how am I called to be a joyful messenger of the Gospel? I can be a joyful messenger by acknowledging that the Gospel is challenging. Christ’s teachings call me beyond myself, beyond my own notions of good and evil, of right and wrong. I can acknowledge, with my students, that the Gospel is challenging and that we are all on a path to understanding. I can remind them of Tom Hanks’s character in A League of their Own, “It's supposed to be hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it.”
I don’t know that Catholic moral teaching is supposed to be hard. I’m sure it wasn’t intended to be. But the reality is, living the Gospel can be an incredible challenge. So often I wish that I could sugar coat the message, explain that there are exceptions to every rule. But most days I like that as a teacher of Catholic morality, I’m not in control of the message—I am responsible for the delivery. Which brings me to Lesson #2:
Lesson #2: The #1 Lesson is that Jesus Christ loves you
Lest I ever lose sight of what my job as a catechist is truly, Pope Francis is clear:
“On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.’…it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment.” (164, emphasis added)
That, right there, is the lesson above all other lessons.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan remarked recently, “If they fall in love with Jesus and the Church, then we can begin to do a lot of the conversion and the tough moral teaching.” The point is not that the moral teachings are not important—they are—it’s just that the primary message is necessarily Christ’s love for us. Is that not the beauty of Catholicism? That “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8)? If we know and are assured of the fact that Christ loves us even in our sinfulness, we can begin to trust in his commandments, in his teachings, in his will for us.
If my students leave my classroom and cannot quote the Catechism, but they are assured that Jesus loves them and is with them in every moment and in every struggle, then I have done my job. The Holy Spirit will take it from there.
Lesson #3: Live the joy of the Gospel
167: “Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties.” (emphasis added)
This reminds me of the adage “You can preach a better sermon with your life than with your lips.”
Somehow, the job of a catechist is to convey that to follow Christ, to obey Christ’s teachings, will lead one to a profound joy, even in the midst of great difficulties. The only means to effectively do this is to live one’s own life in the joy of Christ.
Pope Francis himself is a paragon of the joy that can come only from a radical love for Christ. Many are captivated by his antics—taking the very first papal “selfie” with a group of teens, posing with a newlywed couple wearing a clown nose to raise awareness for a charity, and casually continuing with his address while a young boy clung to his leg in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope has caught the world off guard with his joy and his authenticity. He guides the faithful to the truth that Christ is the true Master teacher. It is imperative that we remember that living the Gospel with joy is more important than teaching the Gospel.