Editor’s note: The following address by Bishop James Conley was delivered to teachers of the Diocese of Lincoln, at a day of prayer and formation, on February 15, 2016.
This morning, I’d like to talk with you about the virtue of friendship, as it relates to the mission of Catholic schools, and especially your work in the education and formation of Catholic school students. I have always believed and maintained that teaching is a very special and unique kind of friendship we share with our students.
As many of you probably know, I didn’t become a Catholic until my college years. And, as I have often said, this was in part due to reading the great minds of the Catholic tradition—especially Blessed John Henry Newman, the great nineteenth century British intellectual and pastor. I sometimes tell people that I read my way into the Church, and that is true to certain extent.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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But as I grow older, I realize more and more that it was the living friendship with other believers—my peers; like Archbishop Paul Coakley, my roommate all through college, and my teachers, who were older, wiser, and more experienced in faith. They witnessed to the power of God in their own lives, and they formed a living experience of the Catholic faith, and of Catholic culture. By means of direct impressions of the faith of my friends, the Lord touched my own heart. Friendship has that power. Christian friendship has the power to awaken hearts and minds to the living presence of Jesus Christ.
I experienced this friendship as a part of the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, led by three professors, Dennis Quinn, Frank Nelick, and John Senior. These men were, through and through, teachers. Unlike many university professors in academia, they weren’t focused on outside research, or publishing technical scholarship, or winning grants. Certainly, they were all brilliant. But their primary commitment was to be teachers—to impart to wisdom, convey beauty, and inculcate wonder among their students. They understood what many of you understand: that teaching, itself, is a noble and worthwhile calling, a kind of ministry, almost, that should be fundamentally concerned with the welfare of students.
Quinn, Nelick, and Senior were good friends themselves. They were, in fact, great friends. And their friendship set the shape and tenor of the entire program. John Senior, who became my godfather, later wrote that a school, first of all, is a “faculty of friends.”
Dr. James Taylor, who is a fellow graduate of the Integrated Humanities Program, summarizes Senior’s viewpoint this way. He says, “Before buildings, before books, even before students, a school is a gathering, often of just a few friends, learning together, who love the same things and love to reflect and remark about them in conversation. The presence of such friendships, and their love of concrete and mysterious realities, is what attracts students to such a school.”
It may seem strange to you that I describe a school as, primarily, a faculty of friends. After all, you may think that whether or not you like or enjoy your fellow teachers has very little to do with what happens in your classroom. But a school is more than just a set of classrooms. A school is an entire community, a gathering of people, seeking and living the truth together. And the mission of a school is more than imparting facts, even facts about faith. A school is more than an information delivery system. The mission of a Catholic school is to integrate students into a living and joyful experience of the Catholic faith, and to give them a perspective, and the tools and knowledge, to understand and live their entire lives in the context and in the mission of the Catholic faith.
We are not simply charged with forming scholars. We are charged with forming immortal souls, disciples of the living God! And because this is our charge, friendship matters. Dr. Taylor says that “the pleasant occasion of real friendship … may lead to an ultimate and more mysterious end: to experience, poetically, a participation in a transcendent feast and friendship, to be caught up in a wholeness beyond ourselves.”
It is our mission to give students the experience of being “caught up in wholeness beyond ourselves.” It is our mission to give our students the experience of being caught up in the exhilarating, life-giving, transformative wholeness of life in Jesus Christ.
And for that mission, our friendship matters.
It might be helpful, to make this more clear, to consider what friendship actually is about. It seems to me that we have a very thin and hollow notion of friendship these days. Friendship is not being digitally connected to each other on social media, vaguely aware of the daily goings-on or the preferences of another. Friendship is also not the experience of simply “liking” one another, or having certain tastes or viewpoints in common. True friendship is much richer than that.
The great British writer, C.S. Lewis, says that friends, true friends, stand “side by side, their eyes look ahead” together. Lewis says that, “friendship must be about something,” because friends are “travellers on the same quest.” Friends, he says, “have all a common vision.”
Lewis says that friendships begin with fundamental questions: “Do you see the same truth? Do you care about the same truth? Do you see the world as I do?”
When Jesus Christ invites us to friendship, he invites us to be “travellers on a quest” with him, to share in the mission of his Incarnation, his Crucifixion, and his Resurrection. Christ invites us to friendship by inviting us to share in his mission: and that mission, dear friends, is the salvation of the world. In a Catholic school, Christ invites us to be true friends by sharing in the quest for the holiness of your students.
What a noble call God gives you. He charges you to collaborate with your fellow teachers, to work together, for the salvation of souls. He calls you to form a community of discipleship, of scholarship, of wonder, and prayer. And he calls you to a kind of friendship that is a witness to your students: that points for them to the ineffable mystery of eternal friendship with God.
Becoming a “faculty of friends” will transform your students in wonder and holiness. And forming true friendships—becoming fellow travellers on the noble quest of Catholic education—will also form you; help each one of you to become more like Jesus Christ himself.
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My spiritual patron, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, said that friendship is a school of love, a school of Christian charity. He thought that human friendship teaches us, in a particular way, how to exercise universal charity.
Newman wrote that “the best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us.”
Friendship is a “school of Christian charity” because friendship makes demands upon us. Our friends are those who are most close to us, who share a vision, and a mission. Our friends are collaborators in the great work—the magnum opus—of our lives. But our friends, like us, are human beings. And relationships with human beings require forgiveness, forbearance, patience, and understanding. We learn those virtues by loving our friends. Newman says that
The real love of man must depend on practice, and therefore, must begin by exercising itself on our friends around us, otherwise it will have no existence. By trying to love our relations and friends, by submitting to their wishes, though contrary to our own, by bearing with their infirmities, by overcoming their occasional waywardness by kindness, by dwelling on their excellences, and trying to copy them, thus it is that we form in our hearts that root of charity, which, though small at first, may, like the mustard seed, at last even overshadow the earth.
Loving our students requires virtue. Children are extraordinary, and wonderful gifts to the world, beloved by God. But children also are trying: they have needs, and demands, and they lack the maturity and good judgment we hope to find in adults. Loving our students—working towards their salvation—requires the “root of charity” in our hearts. And this charity is learned in our friendships. If a faculty is committed to one another in friendship, and growing in holiness in that friendship, students will benefit from the grace of strengthened Christian charity.
The kind of friendship that I’m talking about does not require that every teacher go out for drinks or dessert with his colleagues. It is not the hollow friendship of mutually reinforced cynicism about administrators or the bishop! The kind of friendship that I’m talking about requires that teachers seek, together, to discern how their schools can become stronger as communities of prayer, and discipleship, and knowledge. The kind of friendship I’m talking about is honest and committed collaboration, support, and accountability in service to the mission of Catholic education, and the mission of the Gospel. This kind of friendship will sanctify you, strengthen your school and your students, and give glory to God almighty.
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Before I conclude, I’d like to mention something very important. The evil one, who seeks to undermine our mission at every turn, also seeks to disrupt our unity. The evil one detests Christian friendship. And so he tries to subvert it, or pervert it, or degrade its importance.
C.S. Lewis talks about this in his magnificent work, The Screwtape Letters. The book is a series of letters from Screwtape, a demon, to his young demon nephew, Wormwood. Lewis wrote this work, perhaps his most famous, in 1942 during the height of WWII.
On friendship, Screwtape writes:
Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbors whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary. There is no good at all in inflaming his hatred of Germans if, at the same time, a pernicious habit of charity is growing up between him and his mother, his employer, and the man he meets in the train.
The evil one would like to convince us that “universal charity” is all that matters, while undermining our efforts to become charitable to our families, and colleagues, and friends. If we are to develop habits of true Christian friendships, we must be aware of the evil one’s efforts, and we must pray for protection from them.
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In the Year of Mercy, God calls you, teachers, in a special way, to become conduits of God’s mercy to your students. Learning the art of mercy is the great fruit of Christian friendship. May your friendships strengthen your virtues, and may they strengthen your schools and your students. Your call as teachers is noble and beautiful. May you undertake it in humility, in joy, and in friendship—as “travellers on a quest” for the salvation of your students.