To instruct the ignorant

By Br Mark O'Connor FMS, 14 March 2020
Image: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash.


Our Tradition is so rich in wisdom. Our Catholic practice of the ‘Spiritual Works of Mercy’ is but one example of that depth. For the Spiritual Works of Mercy help us disciples explore how we can dwell in the mercy and tenderness of God, as Jesus our brother guides us on the journey of faith, a journey that is unique for each person.

These days, however, the beautiful concept of Tradition needs to be very carefully distinguished from traditionalism. The proponents of traditionalism, who are notorious for their nostalgia for past ‘Golden Ages’ (that mostly never existed) and get their energy from fighting and condemning other people, are not educators but ideologues.

An educator can never be an ideologue, for ideologues can never ‘instruct the ignorant’, or ‘educate in faith’ since they do not dialogue with learners but talk ‘at’ them.

Jaroslav Pelikan, the famous Christian scholar and great teacher, suggested another way for Catholic educators in faith when he commented: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenised tradition.”

‘Instructing the ignorant’ involves giving people a healthy sense of their Catholic identity or imagination. It aims to help us all live in a postmodern relativistic culture and understand that there is a rationality to Christian faith. Simultaneously, it also insists that faith is primarily a relationship with the living Risen Jesus and begins with the heart.

‘Instructing the ignorant’ is a call for all of us who are privileged to be Catholics to learn more deeply the language of our faith. In an age characterised by superficiality and crass ignorance of the richness of the Judeo-Christian tradition, ‘instructing the ignorant’ is all about showing the beauty of the Catholic Tradition to young and old. It is especially sensitive to reach out to all those people here in Parramatta who are searching for God down many paths. The precious gift of faith in Jesus of Nazareth is something we naturally want to share.

Catholic educators (i.e. all the baptised), however, can never simply approach people as if they are somehow just empty receptacles whose heads need to be filled with more propositions and ideas. Education in faith is about imaginatively engaging in a conversation between our Catholic Tradition and our culture, a secular society that is fundamentally good because it is created by persons, all made in the image and likeness of God.

Yes, cultures are sometimes compromised and flawed and hence in need of redemption. But that does not excuse us from finding ways to discover the treasure hidden in the field of real people’s daily lives. We need to discover with people that Christ is closer to us all, believers and non-believers, (and ‘half’ believers!) than we are to our very own selves.

‘Instructing the ignorant’ then is best done through the witness of our lives and actions, not just words.

I love the story of Pope John XXIII the Great. Papa Roncalli had a long and quite varied life before he became Pope. One of his lengthy assignments as a younger man was in Serbia, where there are many Orthodox but few Roman Catholics. He so endeared himself to the Serbs by his disarming warmth and friendliness that, when he left for a new assignment after many years there, people came in great numbers to say goodbye.

On that occasion he told them: “Anywhere I go in the world, if someone in need passes by my house at night, he will find a lighted lamp in the window. Knock. I will not ask if you are a Catholic. Two brotherly arms will embrace you and the warm heart of a friend will make a feast for you.”

No wonder, that this holy man opened the ‘windows’ of the Church at Vatican II and let ‘fresh air’ in. For Pope John XXIII was a Christian educator who ‘instructed the ignorant’; not a humourless ideologue who alienated and frightened people away from Christ, the Merciful One.

This article is part of a series of Lenten reflections entitled A Spirit of Mercy: Reflections on the Works of Mercy by Br Mark O’Connor FMS.

Br Mark O’Connor FMS is the Vicar for Communications in the Diocese of Parramatta.


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