Before working at St Teresa’s, I worked as a Theology teacher at a Catholic High School in Upstate New York. Our school would draw a variety of different students, with equally as diverse backgrounds. As a Theology teacher, this meant that the students sitting in my classroom were not all Catholic and that for many, Theology was a required course, not the reason they chose to attend our High School.
This was especially true for one student in our school.
They originally came to our school primarily because it was not their local public school. In due time, the student earned a reputation for, let’s say, not being the best of students in multiple ways. Additionally, they were public in expressing their atheism, non-attendance of all things Church-related, and their dislike of having to take Theology as a course. Not that this made them a bad student (I taught self-proclaimed atheists who did quite well in my class). However, their particular attitude certainly didn’t make things easier.
Regardless of whether or not any such reputation was deserved, I found myself one year with this student joining my classroom. They sat in the back corner and began to deliver on what I had previously heard: no homework turned in, phone out any chance they could, etc.
What to do?
Well, I tried first to get to know them, allowing their various questions, even if off topic, and simply continuing to acknowledge them, even if our brief conversations had nothing to do with Theology. However, it seemed that for every step I took forward with them, ultimately, something happened that made us take three steps back. The need to reprimand for misbehavior in class. Failing grades despite offering extra help and extensions.
It was starting to become hard to not just want to cut my losses until June arrived.
By a few months in, I reached the point in my course where we discussed the Eucharist, during which I usually took my classes to the chapel for Eucharistic Adoration and invited a friend to lead us in worship. Part of this time in prayer involved a reading from Scripture, which I would try to outsource to a student before leaving the classroom.
While on the way to the chapel, I noticed that I forgot to ask someone to read the passage. I looked quickly at who was still walking in the hallway and, sure enough, it was the student in question. Taking a chance, I asked if they would be willing to read the Scripture passage at the beginning of Adoration.
To my surprise, they said “Yes.”
I then proceeded to see this self-proclaimed atheist, who was currently failing my class, proclaim St Paul’s words from 1st Corinthians to their classmates in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
Moreover, when our time in prayer together was finished, they went to our worship leader and thanked them for their time and talents.
It was a moment that I would have never guessed would have occurred.
Now, I would like to say that this student then turned into the best student ever, gave up everything for God, and became the next great Theologian. But things are never that simple.
Some of the same, and new, struggles persisted and this student certainly did not become the next St Francis of Assisi (although they still could become a saint, as all of us can). However, of all my time as a teacher, this memory sticks out in my mind because it is a stark reminder of the power of invitation.
If I had never invited them, genuinely invited them, to read the Scripture passage, they would not have. It was that simple. It is the same thing in our Catholic faith.
We may be at different points on our faith journeys and for some us our faith may not be an easy concept, at best, and a topic we abhor, at worst. But faith is not a concept or a topic to simply be known. Faith is trust. And for us as Christians, it is not trusting in a what, but rather in a who. It is trust in Jesus the Christ.
The way Jesus ministered was through an invitation to trust Him, not just what He had to say, or the words that we now find in Scripture. The woman at the well (Jn 4), Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10), the crowd at the Bread of Life discourse (Jn 6) or even the rich young man (Mk 10:17-31) were all invited to trust the person of Jesus whom they encountered. They and others throughout Scripture had the opportunity to accept or reject this invitation freely. While the woman at the well and Zacchaeus accepted it and were transformed, many at the Bread of Life discourse and the rich young man walked away.
Now not being there when people walked away from Jesus, we can only guess at how Jesus felt. Was He upset? Did He have regret? Did He ruminate? At least in John 6, the evangelist tells us that Jesus let the individuals who did not accept His words walk away and then turned to His Apostles saying “Do you also want to leave?” (Jn 6:67). I can only imagine that for Jesus, whose whole purpose for becoming one of us was to invite each individual to relationship and salvation, seeing someone reject Him was hard, enough so that He even questioned the Twelve, His personally invited friends, if they were also ditching Him.
Yet, despite the rejection that Jesus faced, He continued to invite, even inviting the “good thief” on the cross next to Him to Paradise, while passers-by mocked Him.
In the end, the ability to invite others to know Jesus is at times the only ability we have as followers of Christ. I may not always succeed in every endeavor I take on, and can certainly fall flat on my face, leaving marks. As my mother reminds me: “if not even Jesus pleased everyone, what makes you think you will?” But I can at least invite others to trust the same Jesus who has transformed my life, shortcomings and all.
As we begin this Advent, I want to invite all of you to come to trust Jesus more deeply. In many ways, there was no greater invitation to be in an intentional relationship with God than the fact that God became one of us so that God was no longer a concept or an idea to us, but rather someone we could see, hear, and touch. Certainly, Scripture shares that those who did were forever changed.
Like the shepherds, come and see Christ. Like the woman at the well, come and hear His words that bring healing and life. Like the blind beggar, come and feel His healing touch at Mass or Reconciliation.
And then, invite someone else to come and see. It may be awkward. It may be difficult. But like that day in the chapel, you may be pleasantly surprised. After all, as followers of Christ, the ability to invite others to trust the same Jesus who has changed our lives is the most powerful ability that we have.