As a teacher in a Catholic school, you assume that your students are pretty familiar with things like seeing their teachers at mass, hearing them talk about the faith regularly, or simply seeing them live out their Christianity on a daily basis. For better or for worse, it becomes routine. Students attend mass, participate in school wide faith based initiatives, and attend religion classes as a part of their overall education. This cocoon of normalcy, however, can be disturbed at times by the smallest comment coming from a child.
One such comment did that for me when a student remarked during class: “Mr. Phillips, I think you really are religious…like you actually believe.” Whoa! It took a while before I could process the profundity of this simple statement. Now that I have let my head deflate from feeling an excessive sense of accomplishment, I think I can see part of the real message that our Lord was trying to get across to me: they’re watching! Though I have heard it at least one thousand times before, this was one of many “rubber meets the road” kinds of moments. To know that one student was paying enough attention to my words and actions to make such a statement is encouraging as well as frightening. Where have I let others down? When has my witness not matched the statements I make about what it means to be a follower of Christ?
As I reflect on it, I really cannot remember a week that has gone by that I have not heard a student mentioning seeing me at a weekend mass. Often times they can tell me who I was with as well. Now, I do not work under the false illusion that I am the best teacher to walk the planet. I am not such a teacher by any stretch of the imagination, but what I do know is that these students are noticing what I do and how I act. They take the information we deliver to them via our daily witness and they file it away for safe keeping. What a great responsibility we have as teachers, parents, and mentors not to damage the image that those entrusted to our care have of us. We won’t always get it right, but we must always strive to be holy as He who called us is holy (1 Peter 1:15).
I think the words of St. Francis of Assisi ring true here: “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” Are words crucial? Yes! Should we sacrifice direct instruction for simply a quiet witness? Absolutely not. Orthodox teaching lived out by faithful disciples is the only way we can reach our students, neighbors, colleagues, and family members with the gospel. Teaching without a witness is hypocrisy, and an example without instruction deprives the soul of life giving truth. I know I have to do a better job at this, and I bet there are a few of you out there like me. May we always strive to be faithful witnesses to our God who says he loves us and who then demonstrates it on a tree.
Peace be with you!