Through Shadows and Images...

A Blog by Tom Gourlay

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Pope Francis and the Risk of Education

(Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

In his address to the students of Jesuit schools of Italy and Albania, Pope Francis said something that reminded me of one of the great teachers and educationalists of the Twentieth Century, Mons. Luigi Giussani.


‘Educating, in educating a balance must be maintained, your steps must be well balanced, one step on the cornice of safety but the other into the zone of risk. And when the risk becomes safe, the next step must venture into another area of risk. Education cannot be confined to the safety zone. No. This would mean preventing personalities from developing; yet it is not possible to educate solely in the risk zone either: this is too dangerous. It is a balance of steps: remember it well.’ – Pope Francis, Address to the Students of the Jesuit Schools of Italy and Albania, 7 June 2013.

For Giussani, it was imperative that teenage students be taught how to access the truth and rigorously verify any and every claim to truth. For Giussani, the experience of the hopelessness that accompanies the practical nihilism of a life without Christ, coupled with a deeply held Augustinian intuition that God has placed within the heart of every human person a natural desire for the supernatural, gifted him with an incredible ability to trust that, given the right method, that students could discern that T/truth in fact does exist.

This flies in the face of much of what passes for contemporary educational theory, which has been co-opted by a kind of managerialism (a topic for later discussion). For Guissani, education has a goal, and end, or a telos. And according to him the goal of education is maturity, a maturity that is manifest in a faith that is arrived at by way of a rigorous verification of one’s own lived reality.

The neutrality of present-day schools implies an “I couldn’t care less” approach to the meaning of life and the ultimate sense of the topics under study. Students may be presented with a series of solutions, without having a true critical capacity with which to assess them. This type of education normally leads youth to develop a root of scepticism regarding all the more important human problems, not an a priori refusal to take them into consideration; or else it ingrains in them a tendency to be hostile to their own tradition.

Luigi Giussani, The Journey to Truth Is an Experience, trans. John Zucchi and Patrick Stevenson (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006), 116.

The risk lies in allowing for such a verification. It means having one’s ideas put under serious and close scrutiny and even rejected. A Pope Francis mentioned education, if it is to be worthwhile, is itself a risk. And a Catholic education is one which is (or should be) the freest to take the greatest risks. Again, to quote Giussani,

In the Catholic conception of education, the school should be one of the principle instruments for verifying tradition against knowledge, to help people interpret, from a Christian point of view, the whole world that youth are called to enter. (ibid, 116)

This gets at something that has been close to my heart for some time and will, no doubt, be something of a focus for future posts here or research elsewhere.

27 August – Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 16:13-20

“Who do you say I am?

Sometimes we stumble across a gospel passage which is hits us really hard. Today’s gospel is one such instance. Here we have Jesus asking what is seemingly a simple question: ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’

The disciples seem pretty happy to answer such a question, pointing out the many and varied accounts that were circulating at the time. Recounting the theories and positions of others requires very little of me personally.

Jesus then directs the question to the disciples asking, ‘But you, who do you say I am?’ This. This is the tough question.

Interestingly it at this point in the story that the disciples fall silent. This is the crucial question for them all, and it remains crucial for us today. The answer that we provide will have serious consequences for how my life is lived from here on out.

Like the disciples, we are often all too happy to remain in the world of hypotheses and abstractions, rather than commit to a faith that meets us in the grittiness of our life. However, this does not do justice to the reality standing before them – the same reality which confronts us.

Jesus is a person – not merely an idea. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger once stated, ‘an abstraction does not need a mother.’ (Ratzinger Report, 108)

This man makes a claim unlike any other in history, and it is a claim which corresponds to the deepest desire of the human heart.

But the question which he poses requires of us a free response.

Am I willing to commit my freedom and answer this question?

Point to Ponder

‘I know man well. It is I who made him. He is a strange creature.

For in him operates that liberty which is the mystery of mysteries.

Still one can ask a great deal from him. He is not too bad. You must not say he is bad.

If you know how to take him you can still ask a great deal from him…

I know how to take him. It’s my business. And this liberty itself is my creation.

One can ask from him plenty of heart, plenty of charity, plenty of sacrifices.

He has plenty of faith and plenty of charity.’

Charles Péguy, The Holy Innocents

20 August – Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 15:21-28

“‘Woman, you have great faith.”
The reading before us a challenging one. The most common portrayal of Jesus in our day is that of an affable do-gooder, the buddy-Christ, the kind of Jesus that would never offend and never upset anyone. But in this story we have an image of him seemingly reluctant to give a helping hand – and only by virtue of the annoying persistence of this woman does Jesus relent and work the miracle of healing her daughter.
One might get the impression from reading this that Jesus was a little unfeeling here, but perhaps there is a deeper lesson. While we acknowledge as a principle of the faith that Jesus came to save all men and women, we should also note the particularity of the mode in which God operates throughout history. He singles out a person, Abraham, and makes of his descendants a nation who are especially chosen and blessed. God acts in times and places that are very specific, and ultimately God takes on human flesh in the person of Jesus, a man of Hebrew origin in first century Palestine. This is referred to as the ‘scandal of particularity’, and often this fact leaves people wondering ‘why then?’, and ‘why there?’, and ‘why not here and now?’
While we might be tempted to feel hard done by in our circumstances, feeling that if I was there I’d have no trouble believing, we can instead look upon the reality of the Incarnation in a particular time and place as being a gift, a gift which elicits our faith. Like the woman in today’s Gospel, we should persevere, both in our prayer, and in our hope that God does want to show us his love.
This opportunity for faith is a radical freedom.

Point to Ponder
Faith is recognizing that God made flesh is present in the world, in the history of the world.

Luigi Giussani, Is It Possible to Live This Way? (page 54)

What actually is ‘Pastoral Care’?

I had occasion recently to do some thinking on this topic – one which is particularly important to me in my work in Campus Ministry.

Often I feel that what is termed pastoral is juxtaposed against the doctrinal teaching of the faith, and the two are set up in opposition to each other, in a kind of ‘zero sum’ game.

I hope to have shown, with the use of Scripture, and the Church’s teaching at the Second Vatican Council, and through the teaching of recent papacies that pastoral care is fundamentally about helping people attain the holiness to which they are called.

Please have a read and let me know your thoughts:


13 August – Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 14:22-33

‘Lord! Save me!’

As in last week’s reading which recounted the event of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, this reading see’s Peter launching again headlong into territory that he is ill-equipped to handle. With a radical trust in Jesus, whom he sees walking on the water, Peter calls out, asking that he may walk out to meet his friend, then launching himself out of the boat begins to walk across the water. Incredible.

Surely Peter was astounded. Here he is, walking on the water. But rather than be strengthened in his faith, Peter lets the wind and the waves discourage him. Why is this?

He has witnessed not only his friend walking on the water, but he too has actually experienced what it is to walk on water. With the help of the Lord, he has done the impossible, and yet he now loses his nerve.

Peter, as we have seen, is that guy who always rushes in, perhaps somewhat foolishly. In doing so, however, he experiences graces that the other Apostles do not get to. And yet despite these experiences, his faith is easily shaken by the waves and the wind that had been there all along.

What are we to make of this?

It seems that there are many lessons which can be drawn from this. While we might smile knowingly at Peter’s seeming recklessness, we should also be given some pause to consider the depth of the faith that would see him not only to ask to go out on the water but also to then ask for and expect help as he began to sink.

Peter is out of the boat before he realises that he might have gotten himself into a bit of trouble. Seeing the wind and the waves he realises that, were it up to him alone, that he would surely drown and so he begins to doubt. Peter is nothing if not one who lives every moment intensely. The fear he experiences, and the consequent moment of doubt see him begin to sink, but then he reverts back to his usual manner of being and throws himself on the mercy and love of Jesus, crying ‘Lord! Save me!’

Point to Ponder

‘Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God—an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself. From God’s standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly.’

Pope Benedict XVI – Deus Caritas Est, 28 (a).

6 August – Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 17:1-9

“… He was still speaking when suddenly a bright cloud covered them with shadow”

Peter. What a lad.

Quite often a smirk will creep across my face when I read of Peter’s words and actions as relayed in the Gospels. His child-like bravado seems to put him in situations that has him saying or doing things that are oftentimes pretty silly.

Here we have a truly wonderful and mysterious scenario unfolding. Jesus takes his three closest companions with him up the mountain, where he is miraculously transfigured. James and John, are suitably in humbled and silent awe, but Peter cannot contain himself. He just blurts out ‘How good is this!?’ And truly, it is. But, like that awkward younger brother or ‘special’ uncle, Peter simply cannot contain himself. He steps forward and blurts out the obvious, and then brings forward the suggestion, ‘hey, let’s build some tents and just hang out here’, presumably for an indefinite time.

Instead of attempting to be cool, aloof, or emotionally detached, Peter is forthright in his acknowledgement of the amazing things that he is experiencing. His child-like sense of wonder cuts right through the facade of the calm and considered behaviour of those who try to remain ‘proper’ at all times. Instead, he cannot contain his joy and amazement. His lack of filter in fact allows him to experience reality more readily.

Up the mountain with Jesus, Peter and the others had a profound experience, one which would no doubt strengthen them to live through the tremendously difficult times which lay before him.

We can be grateful that there are people like Peter who are not afraid to experience reality with such unadulterated vigour. Perhaps we can pray for such unbridled enthusiasm to animate our lives also.

Point to Ponder

“In the Gospel, there is a sentence that expresses the same ethical imperative in a more fascinating way: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: the reign of God is theirs” (Matt. 5:3). But who are the poor? The poor are those who have nothing to defend, who are detached from those things that they seem to possess, so that their lives are not dedicated to affirming their own possession.”

― Luigi Giussani, The Religious Sense

30 July – Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 13:44-52

“He goes and sells everything he owns and buys it.”

Jesus is good at telling a story. Here the story might seem a little inane, but let’s dig a little deeper.

There’s a particular theme of risk running through these parables, which might seem somewhat reckless. Imagine finding something of such tremendous value. Surely it would be the smart thing to put all our efforts into obtaining that one valuable thing, but would I actually be willing to take that risk?

Selling everything I own, including all those things to which I have become attached would be a daunting task, even if it is a sure thing.

It is risk though, which is the defining reality of our lives. There is tremendous risk in making oneself vulnerable, but it is vulnerability which allows us to experience love – to love and to be loved. This is what gives our lives meaning, and without which we cannot be fully human.

In telling this story, Jesus taps into the basic human desire is for the infinite – he uses the image of earthly riches to point to something much more, and he indicates the necessity of risk involved in obtaining that which our hearts seek.

When Jesus speaks these parables, he issues an invitation, one which is free of all coercion, but which presents itself to me with force. It imposes itself upon me, such that I cannot remain unchanged. While I am free to respond in any way which I chose, but I am not free to remain unchallenged by the invitation.

How will I respond?

Can I step forward and boldly risk all to obtain that which has been offered to me?

What do I need to do to verify the truth of what has been proposed and respond appropriately?

What is holding me back?

Point to Ponder

“Life is hunger, thirst, and passion for an ultimate object, which looms over the horizon, and yet always lies beyond it. When this is recognized, man becomes a tireless searcher.”

― Luigi Giussani, The Religious Sense

23 July – Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 13:24-30

“While everybody was asleep his enemy came”

I think the technical term for sowing weeds into someone’s crop is, ‘dog-act’.

Here’s a bloke, doing his thing, sewing good seed, which would have cost him time and money, and hoping for a good harvest. Then his enemy rocks up, under the cover of night, and scatters darnel (weeds) among the wheat. It is perhaps the definition of a ‘dog act.’

Jesus tells this parable with a view to educating his listeners, to invite them again into the mystery of the Kingdom of God. But, what is he getting at here?

The parables, as we have said, are not simple formulaic or propositional truth. Jesus does not construct logical syllogisms about himself, the Father, the Trinity, or the coming Kingdom. Instead, he tells these parables and performs miracles that invite us to contemplate something mysterious.

Upon learning of crime committed against him, the good farmer takes a course of action that is instructive. Seeing the weeds growing up around the wheat, the servants probably like most of us, suggest swift and decisive action – let’s weed it out now, they say. But the landowner displays something of a more contemplative approach. He acts slowly, trusting that the wheat sown is good wheat, and will not succumb to the threats of the darnel. His reaction is a considered one, not knee-jerk. He does not retaliate against his enemy, nor does he react in a way that would damage the good wheat that he sowed. Instead, he waits, and trusts.

The good seed, the subjects of the Kingdom of God, will need to grow amongst the bad, but his loving, watchful eye looks over all, and he knows the depths of the heart.

Point to Ponder

“The Lord is help, defence and salvation; as a shield he protects the person who entrusts himself to him and enables him to lift his head in the gesture of triumph and victory. Man is no longer alone, his foes are not invincible as they had seemed, for the Lord hears the cry of the oppressed and answers from the place of his presence, from his holy hill.”

Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, Wednesday, 7 September 2011.

Boredom: Plague of the Profoundly Uninterested

Earlier this year I spent some time reading a fascinating book by R.J. Snell entitled, Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire. While reading I was caught reflecting on a lot of the work I had done last year, looking at the work of David L. Schindler, and his metaphysical critique of liberalism. ACedia

For Schindler, liberalism is much more than a political philosophy, it carries with it an entire metaphysic which infects everything, including the ontological vision of all who come into contact with it. Liberalism for Schindler reduces things to the sum of their parts and how they function. It imposes on all a fundamentally mechanistic ontology.

Schindler’s work in this area bears a close resemblance to the work of his colleague at the John Paul II Institute, Michael Hanby, who develops this same line of thinking referring instead to a technological, rather than mechanistic ontology. In fact, as I read Snell’s book, which seems to me to be both an elaboration on, and clever introduction to this kind of thinking, I was caught wishing that I had had access to prior to engaging with thinkers like Schindler and Hanby.

Hanby develops a critique of liberal modernity with a slight variation on Schindler’s mechanistic ontologic, instead pointing to the fusion of techne and logos which the heart of the liberal order. For him, the fundamental danger of technological/technocratic society is that within such a liberal/technological order there can be no such thing as an interesting (inter – inside; esse – being) question. Things in themselves do not have insides. Within liberal order one simply cannot think the whole. And so, in a world where nothing is interesting, the most common experience is necessarily boredom.

All this is beautifully developed and explained in Snell’s book, (which I heartily recommend) and very potently argued in Hanby’s Communio article The Culture of Death, the Ontology of Boredom, and the Resistance of Joy, (Communio 31, Summer 2004).

Book Review: The Mystery and Sacrament of Love – Cardinal Marc Ouellet

Below is a review which I recently wrote for Homiletic and Pastoral Review on Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s work, Mystery and Sacrament of Love. There is much in this book which would do good to those currently engaged in discussions around how many live the sacrament of marriage in our world today, particularly in light of the two Synods on Marriage and Family, and the resultant Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia.



Mystery and Sacrament of Love: A Theology of Marriage and the Family for the New Evangelization, by Cardinal Marc Ouellet. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015 (ISBN 978-0-802-87334-7), xiv + 346 pp., $35.00. Review by Thomas V. Gourlay.

Reputedly a significant potential candidate in the most recent papal conclave, and leading light of the Communio circle of scholars world-wide, Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s publication, Mystery and Sacrament of Love—an English translation of a work previously available in both French and Italian—is a prayerful, pastoral, and theologically rigorous Sacramental theology that is much-needed in our time.

With the synods dealing with marriage and the family now behind us, and with the (in)famous Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetita, still the subject of intense discussion, Ouellet’s work, which predates the synods and the exhortation, offers a mode of pastoral engagement with the real issues that plague marriage and the family in our contemporary world. His efforts here are informed by a deeply spiritual, and academically rigorous, theological reflection.

Readers familiar with Ouellet’s previous work will… [continue reading…]

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