Image credit: Alessandro Patelli

Bishops have three jobs: to teach, to sanctify, and to govern. If they’re performing their sacramental function, the second task — to sanctify — should be easy. The third task, governing, often seems like the one they’re more interested in — though too often it sounds as if the bishops want to rule their dioceses as monarchs, not govern as partners. Lay people can’t help much with those two jobs, but it’s the first where I think we classroom teachers can offer some good advice to our bishops.

Consider the consistent message of Pope Francis since his 2013 election. Before talking, listen. Before judging, love. Unite, don’t divide. Don’t be an ideologue; embrace real-life circumstances. Go out and accompany people, don’t wait for them to show up. These are all solid teaching techniques.

American religious leaders across the faith spectrum wonder: why are people leaving institutional religious affiliations? Maybe that’s the wrong question — like complaining about the students who don’t take your class instead of teaching the ones right in front of you. Forget the numbers of church attendance and think about the quality of the message and services. Many commentators scoff at the notion of the nones — younger and middle-aged people who don’t go to church and call themselves spiritual but not religious. 

So what? There’s evidence that those same nones are very concerned with social justice issues: they volunteer at food pantries, they get involved in activism to help disadvantaged or overlooked communities, they study law to change legislation to align it more with gospel values. Yes, I’d like them to receive the Eucharist every week, but if they’ve gotten Jesus and are doing Jesus, they’re close to the body of Christ, too. Some students enjoy a class, but they don’t always turn in essays on time. Such students still leave the course with insights and something that’s meaningful to them. Sometimes a C is as good as an A.

A good number of American Catholic bishops sound like bad teachers. Their strategy, especially in evidence at their recent national meetings, is to pull out all the cookie-cutter standards from the school of “it’s not our fault.” The problem lies outside the church, not inside, they say. The church is under attack, and we must stand firm. They trot out the tired banners of bad press coverage and secularization. Blame the students. 

Other bishops lament that people in the pews don’t understand the Real Presence. Whose fault is that but the teachers’? The bishops’ decision last November to spend nearly $30 million dollars for a Eucharistic tent revival photo op in July 2024 won’t get the job done. If they find this to be such a critical concern, why are they waiting more than two years for the event? Moreover, setting it in the next presidential election cycle reveals a motive of crass politics, not urgent evangelization. Too much of the bishops’ teaching, masquerading as apologetics, comes down to an event like this one: we’re right, and our stuff is beautiful. If you were smart enough to appreciate that, you’d come back to church. 

Good teachers don’t stand regally and beckon students to come recognize their genius. They go out to meet students where they are, speak the way they do, and then introduce the material by linking it to their lives. They take advantage of the moment at hand. A better way to talk about the Real Presence would be having every parish join together for a twenty-four-hour adoration vigil grounded in regional cultures. Or, like a good but under-funded teacher, they make a quick adjustment and use existing resources: tie it into the Holy Thursday tradition of reserving the Eucharist for Good Friday. That approach, starting right away in a few months and building on affordable arrangements made every year, could reach individual hearts in their own neighborhoods. It may even grab Easter-only Catholics who aren’t going to make summer vacation plans for a Eucharistic Congress.  

Let me offer three recommendations for our religious leaders from a teacher’s perspective as the worldwide Catholic church moves into a two-year process of discernment through the experience of local, regional, and then a universal synod in October 2023. 

Let me offer three recommendations for our religious leaders from a teacher’s perspective as the worldwide Catholic church moves into a two-year process of discernment through the experience of local, regional, and then a universal synod in October 2023.

First, stop blaming the outside world — or the course or the textbook or the classroom desks or the lighting or the students themselves. The church’s problems are the church’s fault. If something isn’t working in a classroom, dump it.  Every good teacher knows that the problem isn’t the students if all of your students flunk a quiz. You wrote a bad quiz. 

Second, listen to those who don’t understand or aren’t paying attention. They press you to explain better. Show them respect, not disdain. Watch their faces and notice when they say “huh?” with their expressions or bodies. If they’re on Facebook instead of taking notes, maybe you’re boring or not speaking their language. If you’re open to correction, they can make you a better teacher.

Third, think about why students don’t take your class — or, in this case, don’t show up on Sunday. It’s odd but true: students keep taking classes with particular professors even if they struggle with the material. The first thing a teacher teaches is themselves: their authentic enthusiasm for the material. This doesn’t mean striving to be popular by lowering standards but pushing students by challenging them with humor and joy. Maybe kids don’t go to church because they don’t like the witness they see and hear in the pulpit beyond one hour a week at Mass. 

Even the best teachers have a lousy day. There are ways to turn the page.

Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D., is Professor of History at Kean University and he is the author of the forthcoming book, Humility: The Secret History of a Lost Virtue (Georgetown University Press, 2023).