Who’s Your Teacher?

6 Mar

Every year during Holy Week, my family puts out an Easter display, which, like the more familiar Nativity scenes, provides a tangible image of the events of the particular liturgical season. After the Easter Vigil, we roll the rock away from the opening of the tomb and remove the resurrected Jesus.

One Easter morning, I asked my then-four-year-old son, Samuel, whether he had checked out Jesus’ tomb. He ran downstairs to investigate, much like Peter and John did on the first Easter morning. I was so pleased; everything was going as planned.

However, Samuel soon came back and reported, “He wasn’t in there, so I put Him back in.” (Pause for chuckling.) “Where did you find Jesus?” I asked, to which he innocently replied, “Over by the television.”

Obviously, my wife and I have much more work to do with Samuel and our other children to ensure that they understand the central mysteries of our faith. Like Samuel with the Easter scene, not every lesson has been a smashing success, but we realize that we cannot lose heart, because teaching our children the ABC s of the faith is a crucially important responsibility. The Church tells us, after all, that because we are parents, we necessarily are teachers.

In today’s Gospel we hear, “As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’ [or ‘teacher’]. You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers” (Mt. 23:8). This is from the same discourse in which Jesus says, “Call no one on earth your father” (Mt. 23:9). Does Jesus really mean that we should avoid using these titles? Of course not. After all, these terms continued to be used by Christ’s followers in the New Testament after this discourse, and they have been continuously used throughout the history of the Church.

One incident in St. John’s Gospel sheds particular light on the nature of Christ’s teaching. On this occasion, the Jews marveled at Our Lord’s teaching and asked, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” Jesus responded by saying, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (Jn. 7:15-16). Jesus’ religious teaching was authentic because it came from His Father. It was a question of divine authority, not mere human learning or ingenuity, no matter how clever or insightful.

That same principle applies to all of us. We’re authentic teachers (or, more technically, “catechists”) to the extent we communicate the person and teachings of Christ rather than our own opinions or agendas. While we rightly adjust the way we communicate the teaching depending on age, culture, and other variables, Christ is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8), and His teachings are true in every age. Christ commissioned the Apostles–and all of us–to pass on His teachings (see Mt. 28:19-20).

As Catholics, we understand that the Church’s magisterium, or official teaching office, alone has “the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition.” This refers to the special gift of the Holy Spirit given to the Apostles and their successors to ensure that no “break” occurs in the teaching chain. In other words, Jesus entrusts what He received from the Father to the Church, so that when the Church teaches, God Himself is teaching (cf. Lk. 10:16).

Some Catholics experience difficulty accepting a “magisterium.” The word comes from the Latin “magister,” which simply means “teacher.” However, for many people the term has negative, perhaps very negative, connotations. If one looks up “magisterial” in the dictionary, one finds secondary meanings such as “dictatorial,” “imposing one’s will,” “overbearing,” and “pompous,” among others. These negative connotations sometimes carry over into one’s perception of the Church.

As we know, the magisterium is hardly a dictatorship. In fact, the Church teaches us that the magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. But let’s face it: In today’s “dictatorship of relativism,” as Pope Benedict has described the present climate, the assertion of objective, revealed truth as represented by the magisterium is an affront and a stumbling block. We are taught to choose and create our own truth, particularly in moral areas in which our inclinations and desires might clash with “magisterial” teaching.

We are called to accept the teachings of the magisterium with joyful docility and liberty. In doing so, we are not acting out of compulsion or fear or mindless credulity. Rather, faithful Catholics from one generation to the next must make their own the confession of faith of St. Peter, who said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life” (Jn. 6:68). Thanks be to God, these words are spoken to each one of us through the ministry of the Church.

During this time of renewal, of the “new evangelization” and the upcoming “Year of Faith,” we need a renewed commitment to the teaching Church’s catechetical mission. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “Periods of renewal in the Church are also intense moments of catechesis” (no. 8).

2 Responses to “Who’s Your Teacher?”

  1. William March 6, 2012 at 9:51 pm #

    Great reflection! Thanks for sharing!

  2. JohnE March 8, 2012 at 10:05 pm #

    Jesus to the initial Magisterium:
    “Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” (Luke 10:16)

    As a priest explained the other day, the Church is the sacrament of Jesus and Jesus is the sacrament of God: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9); “He is the image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15)

    And I think you could say that we, in the unity of the Body of Christ, are the sacrament of the Church.

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