There are many words in our language that have been hijacked. Ignorant is one of them. It’s most often used as a put down to demean its target. But its true meaning is something quite different: lacking in knowledge or training; unlearned or unaware.
When we approach the spiritual work of mercy, “Instructing the Ignorant”, from the proper viewpoint, it has a very different sound and feel: we teach the unlearned. Anytime we instruct, or teach, we are doing so to someone who is ignorant, that is, unlearned. Otherwise they really wouldn’t need a teacher, would they?
How do we teach the unlearned?
The most obvious and primary method for most of us is teaching children – either our own or those entrusted to us in CCD. When they are young, we start by teaching them what to do. How to make the sign of the cross. When to sit, kneel or stand at Mass. We keep the Lord’s Day by going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days. We quiet them in church and genuflect before the tabernacle. We teach those little wiggly ones to speak with their bodies. We teach them how to speak respectfully to other people. We teach them by what we say and by what we do, because they’re watching.
From there we teach them their prayers – the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, the Guardian Angel prayer, the Rosary, etc. They learn the rote memorization. It is our job to make sure they understand the meaning behind the words and to review it often, so that they can pray and not just say. We instruct them by the witness of our prayer life – how they see us pray and by our sharing how God has answered our prayers. People can argue and refute lots of things, but they can’t refute your experience. Tell them the marvels God has done in your life.
As they get older, we, as teachers, need to take it up a notch. We must know our faith in a deeper way. And we must be able to defend it. As our children and students grow into the teen years, we must approach them as we would adults in terms of our prepartion, but not necessarily our teaching. With teens, we may still have them in a classroom or living under our roof, so that the conversation may be more structured. With adults, we are more likely to have conversation in passing rather than with structure.
The culture undermines our efforts, and I believe a frontal assault is our proper response.
Teens have many questions. This is especially true for students who have little faith foundation from the home. Many of them aren’t quite sure there’s a God. Although, actually I’d say, many of them do believe in God, but they just don’t know how, in this scientific age, to be sure of His existence. In fact, that question alone is a great starting place.
The culture teaches them that creation is a random happening of some kind of primordial soup in which two cells came together and everything began. Of course, there is that oft-overlooked question of where did the cells come from and who created them. The fact also exists that this primordial soup is sulfuric acid, better known as battery acid, in which nothing really lives. But they are not taught to question these teachings, only the existence of God. The Catechism of the Catholic church teaches us that “…God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.” (CCC 36 emphasis mine) We have an obligation to bring them along in answering their foundational questions.
Often students, teens and adults alike, want to know how to answer the deepest questions of the human heart, but don’t know how or are too shy to ask. We are charged with being equipped. The theological questions of the day: does God exist? Who is Jesus? Why did He come? How does His dying on the cross do anything for me? and the moral questions of the day: Why should marriage be only between one man and one woman? What’s the big deal about sleeping together if you’re not married? Why not terminate a pregnancy? Why not let physicians assist someone who wants to die? My uncle is gay, and he’s a really nice guy; why does the Church say that he’s bad?
As teachers, we must study and learn what the Church teaches about these and why. The Catechism is the best place to start. Catholic books stores and trusted web sites will have great resources as well. Sites like EWTN, American Life League, Catholic Exchange, Catholic Mom, the Vatican, and the USCCB are good places from which to launch your study.
We must also practice the debate. Choose a topic and a buddy. The two of you study and have an “argument” so that you can each fortify yourself for the discussions you may encounter with your students, your family members, your neighbors, or your co-workers. Practicing will help you to sharpen your skills, confirm you strengths, reveal your weaknesses and aid you in remaining unemotional when the time of actual discussion arises.
Finally, we do some of our best teaching without even opening up our mouths! Be authentic. Live your Catholic identity fully in faith, hope and charity, so that people are attracted to the Spirit of God within you. Like Saint Francis of Assissi said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.”
May God bless you and keep you, Anne