I first heard Christophe Pierre speak in person at an event in New York City in February of 2019. His infectious smile and hearty laughter revealed, it seemed to me, a person filled with genuine joy. (His delightful French accent somehow served to underscore his joviality.) I had journeyed to Manhattan from Upstate South Carolina with about 20 of my students and a handful of chaperones. I particularly remember how one of them reacted to the Archbishop’s speech: “I love that guy.” The students, most of them seniors in high school, may or may not have tracked with every idea Pierre was illustrating, but they apprehended something that actually made them want to listen: he was clearly a happy man. The Church, by the way, has a word for this: Gaudium.
Then this week, as I sat in a backyard in Calgary, Alberta, on the tenth day of the 14-day quarantine for travelers to Canada, I suddenly remembered that the USCCB’s Plenary Assembly was beginning. I opened the livestream on my phone, saw that it was Archbishop Pierre, felt the stir of my own curiosity, and thought: “I will definitely learn something right now.” I managed to listen to most of the address (interrupted only once by a 4-year old’s temper tantrum.) I was not disappointed. Like my students a few years ago, I felt that I was not primarily hearing an enumeration of concepts, but listening to—I might even say dialoguing with—a person.
This is not a hagiographical ode to Pierre—I know next to nothing of his personal life, his own temperament clearly lends itself to communicating joy, and temperament is an unearned gift. Rather this is an example of what Pierre called “the method” of Christianity: “encounter and dialogue,” which can even take place over a poorly live-streamed video. (If you missed the speech, you can watch the replay beginning after minute 1:08 on the video or you can take a few quiet minutes to read through the nuncio’s text in full.) As Pierre contrasted the simple, essential method of Christ with the ideas we tend to fixate upon—“slick but superficial marketing campaigns,” “the minutiae of complicated theological concepts,” “customs…moral norms…social rituals”—I could not help but think of my freshmen theology students. At the end of the school year, they were each asked to write about their faith experiences over the last year. I would like to share a few snippets from these writings (with their permission) that reflect the message of the Papal Nuncio and suggest that his insights point the way forward for evangelizing the world today.
Archbishop Pierre invites the bishops (and all of us) to ask a fundamental question as we grope our way out of the pandemic: “Are we a Church that responds to the true needs of our people?” Some may be wary of this approach or even see it as a slippery slope toward conforming or watering down the truth. But the only way the Gospel can enter the heart of a person is through the door of their need for an answer they cannot find on their own. We cannot respond to the “true needs” of people if they do not know what their own needs are—and even less if we do not know our own need.
One of the first units in our school’s freshman theology course, a curriculum I inherited from a line of master teachers before me, adopts this approach and deals with the “ultimate questions” of life. At the end of the year, a freshman wrote:
I have been…in Catholic schools my whole life…coming into this year I expected the same thing, lots of talk about the 10 commandments, do’s and don’ts about being a teenager, and reading the bible. However, this year’s religion class brought in depth studying of not as much the Bible, but myself…I learned so much about my personal desires that are infinite, that I will never be able to fulfill…I realized that I have so many ultimate questions, and a lot of times try to answer them with measurable things. I learned that knowing my heart leads to knowing my specific needs and desires.
In order to respond to the actual needs of her children, the Church first awakens those needs and makes them acute. We can read Christ’s encounter with the woman at the well as a dialogue that provokes the woman’s thirst for more: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may no longer thirst” (John 4:15). Another student writes:
When we began the section on ultimate questions, I suddenly realized how many of the recent questions I had been asking, such as “why did my dad have to die?” and “what is my purpose?” Although I sometimes tried to avoid my ultimate questions and distract myself by keeping busy, after the lesson on [the ways we avoid our ultimate questions] I learned to embrace my ultimate questions and look at the world around me with openness and curiosity.
When we help someone discover their ultimate questions and needs, they become open and curious. Jesus was constantly on the lookout for this openness and curiosity, because it was the fertile ground where the seed of the Gospel could be planted. As Archbishop Pierre stated: “It seems to me that Jesus would often look out at the vast crowds and see their suffering and would satisfy their deepest hungers and desires.” Young men and women who know the “true answers”—even the Catholic ones—but do not truly know themselves, their questions and needs, are potential victims of the winds of ideological power. But a young person who begins to live their questions suddenly finds a criteria to evaluate the adequacy of his own answers and those offered by the world. A student writes:
I learned…that I had needs and desires that I never knew I had. Now that I know the needs of my heart, I can look for ways that I am trying to fulfill those needs. In this, I can use my reason to decide if those ways are quality or not…I also learned how to observe myself in action. With this, I can judge my experiences and base my decisions off them.
When we as teachers and preachers in the Church patiently accompany people to awaken and discover their true needs, we can then proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ as a response to those needs. People who are actively asking the questions are in a position to recognize the answer that matches up with their needs. The first student quoted above continues:
Then, to be able to connect all of my recognized desires, wants, and even mistakes to God and Jesus immensely changed the way I view life. Before, my faith in God had its ups and downs, but now I realize nothing in the world can and has answered my questions and desires but God. Nothing can be explained except for when I think of Jesus and how he took my mistakes and everyone else’s and sacrificed himself for them. He is the answer to so much of my immeasurable life.
The essential content of the Good News is the mercy of God in Christ. Archbishop Pierre reminded our bishops that “the starting point, therefore, cannot be to shame the weak but to propose the One who can strengthen us to overcome our weaknesses.” We may not realize how our way of talking about Christ is often perceived as shaming or oppressive by young people. A fourth student writes:
I…learned to see Christ as a friend rather than a rule maker to be afraid of. Because of how I’ve been raised in terms of religion, this was very important for me and brought me back to my faith I was losing. I’m glad it was lost and found because this is a new one.
It is not an act of evangelical courage to continually thrust the most difficult teachings in the face of people who do not know if they can trust the Church. Rather, in my experience it takes evangelical courage to patiently accompany people and to build the trust that eventually may open them up to the most radical Christian truths. One student from a less-religious background wrote:
My most memorable moment in your class was when you pulled me aside and asked me if I was doing alright. It was such a weird experience for me because I had never had a teacher want to connect outside lesson plans. In my other schools and my shadowing at boarding school none of the teachers really knew the students. I don’t know but that moment really resonated with me because it started a chain reaction of working towards change. I realized people might just care.
…I am still unsure how I feel about the whole “religion in general”, but I do know more of what I want.
Archbishop Gomez, the president of the USCCB, in his opening remarks for the plenary assembly, said that “the urgent task of the whole Church in this moment” is to “defend the truth about God the Creator, and the truth about the sanctity of the human person and the unity of the human family in God’s plan for creation.” It is tempting to juxtapose Gomez’ “defensive” proposal with Pierre’s “proclaiming” vision of the Church. But perhaps the most effective way, the most human way, to “defend the truth” is precisely the path of encounter, accompaniment, and dialogue that Archbishop Pierre proposed to our bishops. It is a journey that is slow, steep, but ultimately rewarding. As the Archbishop’s father used to say: “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.”
This “going together” does not come very naturally to young people in our society. It probably does not come very naturally to any of us, or to our bishops. A freshman writes: “For as long as I can remember I thought maturity was being able to be independent and not depend on someone else.” We who represent the Church can run the danger of wanting people—and ourselves first—to be so perfect we no longer need Christ. Depending on others and needing to be accompanied is not the result of weakness or the fall, but part of our original condition: “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). It is a sign that another spirit is interfering with things when we think we can forge our way alone. The same student continues:
From the lesson about life before the Fall, I learned it is ok to need others and ask for help. Oftentimes, I would try to suppress my feelings and keep them to myself, but after the lesson, I realized it is not a mistake that I need to talk to others. In consequence, I began talking to my mom more about my feelings and forged a deeper bond with her.’
The result of dialogue born from the awareness of need is “a deeper bond” between a suffering child and a compassionate mother. The Church, by the way, has a word for this unity: Communion.
Image: USCCB Livestream