Education as Accompaniment

May 10, 2019

Sister Mary Madeline Todd, O.P., S.T.D.

Pope Francis’ call in Laudato Si’ for “educators capable of developing an ethics of ecology and helping people, through effective pedagogy, to grow in solidarity, responsibility, and compassionate care”(1) finds its model in the Person and mission of Jesus Christ. Linking the pope’s call to the recent document of the Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion, this article will explore the encounter of Jesus Christ with the disciples on the road to Emmaus as a model of unconditional service and accompaniment rooted in a love that transforms individuals and therefore can transform our schools and our world.

When we know and believe with real and living faith that we ourselves are the beloved children of God, then we also know the real dignity of each person with whom we share our lives, and especially the students entrusted to us in our schools. When Pope Francis calls us to build an educational environment that is one marked by solidarity, responsibility, and compassionate care, this mission rests on the foundation of our view of the unique and precious gift of every person.

“Compassion is the quality that enables us
not to ignore or eliminate the one who is suffering,
but to share the suffering of others,
to suffer with others so that love unleashes joy
within the human community.”

Solidarity means that we see ourselves as united, and there is no greater bond of unity than our oneness in Christ that makes us literally brothers and sisters. Responsibility comes from realizing that not only are we created and loved by God, but that we are entrusted with the gift of all of creation, including each person made in God’s image. The necessary result of this is that we learn how to exercise compassionate care. The people we meet bear unique sufferings and joys. Compassion is the quality that enables us not to ignore or eliminate the one who is suffering, but to share the suffering of others, to suffer with others so that love unleashes joy within the human community.

St. John Bosco is often quoted as saying: “It is not enough for young people to be loved; they must know they are loved.” We can think back to the teachers who changed our lives, those who impacted us the most. Do we remember all of the facts they taught us? What do we remember? We all remember those who loved us, who cared about us, and who wanted our true well-being.

At the time of the Second Vatican Council, the Church already articulated a relational and transformational vision for Catholic education. In the document Gravissimum Educationis, Pope Paul VI called for an accompaniment of others rooted in one’s own sense of being accompanied by Jesus Christ: “Intimately linked in charity to one another and to their students and endowed with an apostolic spirit, may teachers by their life as much as by their instruction bear witness to Christ, the unique Teacher.”(2)

More recently, in the Congregation for Catholic Education’s document Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion, leaders in the Church called for a style of educating that mirrors the accompaniment of Jesus with the disciples on the road to Emmaus. The document states: “Teachers, school heads, administrative staff: the whole professional and educational community is called upon to present faith as an attractive option, with a humble and supportive attitude. The model is provided by Jesus Christ and his disciples in Emmaus: we must start from young people’s life experience but also from that of co-workers, to provide an unconditional service. Actually, educating young people to serve and give themselves freely is one of the hallmarks of Catholic schools, in the past as well as the future.” (3)

To present faith as an attractive option requires living our faith as a dynamic and life-changing relationship. If we see our faith as a Sunday only event, or as a series of negative rules, or as a tiresome obligation, Christ wants to renew our vision. We cannot spread love for Christ and his Church if we do not have it first. Having a humble and supportive attitude begins with understanding what true humility is. Humility is not false self-negativity. It is truth about who we are and who God is. We are called to welcome humbly the gifts God has given us and the gifts he has given each person we meet, without being demanding of the gifts we lack. God revealed to St. Catherine of Siena that he did not give any one person all gifts so that we would rely on each other. If we walk in this truth, we will be supportive of others rather than critical and negative. We want to be for each other.

“The journey becomes
a moment of encounter
through compassionate listening.”

In the model of Jesus’ encounter with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we can recognize the need to start from the life experience of our students and our co-workers. We are called in education as accompaniment to set out on a journey. Jesus meets the disciples where they are: “And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them” (Lk 24:15). The journey becomes a moment of encounter through compassionate listening. Jesus asks them what they are discussing, and he allows the disciples to recount their hopes and disappointments, their understanding and confusion. After a long period of listening, Jesus gradually sheds the light of Scripture on their experiences. In Luke’s gospel we read, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures” (v. 27).

This education through accompaniment that begins with listening and continues with shedding the light of God’s revealed truth is meant to embrace not only an exchange of ideas, but also a fuller sharing of life unto unity. Jesus builds this unity as he draws the disciples together at the table. He seemed to the disciples en route to Emmaus to be going further, but they invited him to stay and eat, and he accepted the invitation. He not only shared with them the rich human experience of a meal together, but he transformed their encounter into a sacramental moment. Luke writes, “And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” (v. 30-32). Among the greatest of blessings of teaching in Catholic schools is that we not only share life in the classroom, the lunch room, and the playing fields, but that we also gather around the altar to pray and to be united by Christ and in Christ. This is accompaniment at its deepest level.

Our call to teach is a share in the mission of Christ; we are His instruments. We are called to encounter the love of God, to find life’s meaning in his Word and in the abiding presence of the one who loves us and sustains us in the breaking of the bread. If we come to know who we are and whose we are in the merciful love of God, we will be teachers of truth – of the saving truth that God loves each and every one of his children and came that we might have life and have it abundantly. Then we will give unconditional service to all, giving from the fullness we have first received, accompanying as we have been accompanied.

1 Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, no. 210.
2 Pope Paul VI, Gravissimum Educationis, no. 8.
3 Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion,
III, 1, a.

This article is reprinted from the Spring 2019 Aquinas Magazine.

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