Sunday, May 29, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 8:5-17; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21

One of my favorite scriptural passages is in today’s second reading from the First Letter of Peter: "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence." I suppose it was because it seemed to me that defined the whole purpose of my career as a professor of theology. My task was ultimately to help others come to the ability to give an explanation for their faith. In teaching seminarians I was instructing those who would later pass it on to their parishioners. In talks to parishes and various diocesan groups I was assisting them directly with the deeper grasp of their faith, "a reason for their hope."

I can still remember vividly my very first teaching experience. I was returning from Rome with my Masters degree in Systematic Theology in the summer of 1969, the year the School of Theology was having its first summer session. The session was open to seminarians, diocesan and religious priests, religious sisters and laity. Since classes in Rome finish later than in the United States, I was barely going to make it for the beginning of classes. I would arrive late one Saturday evening, have Sunday to get my first class ready, and begin on Monday morning. I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the classroom. When I finally did that Monday morning, I quickly looked over my class of around 25 participants and realized.....that I was the youngest person in the classroom. So I said: "Look at it this way. I have a lot of theoretical knowledge and you have a lot of pastoral experience. If we put those together, we can have a wonderful summer." And, indeed, we did.

It also didn’t take me very long to realize that learning the craft of teaching is a project in itself. My first years of theological education were blessed with a wonderful group of professors at St. Meinrad School of Theology. They gave stimulating lectures (most of them), encouraged class discussion and wanted students to think creatively. They were wonderful role models. But when I went to Rome to begin my Master’s degree studies, I encountered an entirely different system of education. There the professors read their lectures from prepared texts. There was no classroom discussion. Moreover, you could buy copies of the teacher’s lectures. Your final test questions were going to be taken directly from the material in the lectures. No creative thinking was encouraged. I was really puzzled by this educational system. It seemed so pedantic. Gradually I learned the reason for it. At various times in history when professors argued different points with each other, one of the tactics that was often employed was to get copies of the students’ notes that they had taken in class. In one case the professor’s opponents found evidence of over one hundred heresies in the students’ class notes. You begin to wonder just how much the students learn of what you actually intended to teach. Sometimes not a whole lot despite the best of your intentions.

When you go back to that scriptural passage I began with ("Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence)." you realize that the task of accomplishing that ultimately devolves on the individual believer himself or herself. The teacher is only a part-time guide. When I began teaching, I tried to set out to give the students an exact blueprint of directions to the desired goal. Somewhere along the way I realized that the most a teacher can do is point students in the general direction. And to encourage them to do their own hard work in being able to "give a reason for their hope." Let’s pray that all of us may work hard to be able to "give a reason for our hope."

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