The new teachers at Saint Joseph's Prep gathered in the chapel for Mass today, the first of their three workshop days. Back row: the three alumni service corps teachers and graduates from the class of 2005, Colin McKenna, Mark Cice and Matthew Rafferty and to their left Courtney Pinto, a new college counselor. Front row: Mrs Yuan (Joann) Chen (Mandarin Chinese), Amy Romm (college counselor), Abbey Miles (athletic trainer) and Brian Reinhart (campus ministry/Religion).
Homily at Mass for our New Teachers
Today is the 21st Tuesday in Ordinary Time and there is no reason to expect that the readings assigned for this particular day have anything to do with teaching. But there is an element of serendipity in the daily readings for the Mass. Often some phrase or story calls out to the reader as exactly what we need to hear. So I focus on today’s text from the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. Paul, the consummate Christian teacher, taught in the Greek town of Thessalonia, now the beautiful port city known as Salonika, for at least many months and made converts there. Not long after he leaves he sends his converts a memorial letter. He writes this to his former students: “We were as gentle with you as a nurse caring fondly for her children….we chose to impart to you not only the gospel of God but our very selves, so dear had you become to us.”
Paul concerns himself first with content, the gospel of God, second with his own relationship to the content (he means that as he preaches the gospel, he tells something about his very self) and third with his attitude toward the student, “so dear had you become to us.” Content, his own self and his attitude toward his audience.
These three aspects, at least, in Paul’s teaching accounted for its success. The Spirit of Jesus convinced Paul of the truth in the gift to humanity in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul came to a crucial realization that his own life depended on faith in what this Jesus had accomplished for him. In his ambition and his love for his students he wants them to know this Jesus and to know that this Jesus, as it says elsewhere in Thessalonians, will “deliver us from the wrath to come.”
We all wish to be great teachers. As teachers the content of our message is some essential truth about the world. But there must also be a sense in which that truth is very important to us. It is objective truth, to be sure, but we must make it subjective as well. It may give us joy. It may integrate our lives. It may help us to understand ourselves. It is an essential truth that we wish to impart to our students because we believe that it will prepare them for their futures.
My best teachers were the ones who were in some ways moved by the subject matter. I remember a Greek teacher with tears in his eyes as he read from Homer’s Iliad about Priam pleading with Achilles for the body of his son Hector so that he can give his son a proper burial. (This story came back to me recently when our graduate, Josias, drowned in Ocean City and his parents in their anguish asked the police to keep looking for his body until finally it washed ashore.) And a math teacher who wrote out the fundamental theorem of calculus and then pounded the blackboard excited to tell us that all of calculus was represented right there. These teachers grasped the integrity of what they were teaching, something about truth and beauty in itself. They opened one to a whole new world. Their enthusiasm was infectious and for us students it spilled over into other areas of life.
Paul had his faults; his ambition for the gospel and his love of his converts often led him to jealousy and suspicion. But he longed for his students to grasp his crucial message as key to their futures and he tried as best he could to love them into understanding and possessing that message.
So consider these things as teachers: you have a truth that is crucial to you. Your teaching demeanor must show this. You must find a way to care for your students, as Paul says, like a nurse…tough love when they can take it but tender love when necessary.