Education as a means to sainthood: A reflection for teachers

     This past June, after boarding a flight down to New Orleans I did my usual, pull out my iPad and plug in my headphones. Yet, as I sat down in my seat and ordered my usual pre-flight drink of coffee with baileys, I couldn’t help but notice that the elderly passenger next to me kept looking over at me before eventually telling me that I looked familiar and asking if we knew each other. When he introduced himself, I immediately recognized him; he was the man who 10 years or so ago merged into my lane and sideswiped me before over-correcting and driving under the trailer of an 18-wheeler before sideswiping another car and miraculously ending up still alive on the shoulder of the highway. While I think I tend to be pretty smooth in casual conversation I wasn’t sure to tell this man, that’s how we knew each other.

     Suddenly it dawned on me, 10 years ago when the man hit me, I did what any good millennial would do and Googled him only to discover that he was one of the world’s foremost reproductive physicians. So, I introduced myself as a local bioethicist and suggested that perhaps our work had crossed paths. After catching up on his recent work, the conversation quickly turned to the Catholic Church’s opposition to much of his work.

     Reproductive ethics is one of my specialties and I feel very confident in any religious or secular ethical discussion anyone could want to have on this topic. Recognizing that He wasn’t Catholic, I decided to start our conversation on the secular level. As we talked from a purely secular view about what is ethically wrong with some of his work, it dawned on me that we were spending allot of time talking only about outcomes, but we hadn’t spent any time talking about the journey to that outcome. Most of his arguments justifying his work were rooted in the good outcome for the prospective mother while ignoring the path to get to that desired outcome. In essence he was arguing that as long as the initial goal was achieved it didn’t really matter how we got there.

     Certainly, as Catholics we believe “the end does not justify the means,”[1] yet it becomes so easy for us to get caught with our blinders on and only focus only on the ends. I think it’s fair to say that, most older students and most parents of younger students fall into this trap. How often do students simply look at their grade as a means to measure their success? How often do parents tell their students that they expect they get an A in the class. In fact, it seems so often that to students, parents, and even academic institutions all that seems to matter is the final grade.

     I can’t tell you how many times a student has emailed me saying “Father what do I need to do to get an A.” I usually respond to that with a simple email; “Dear X, an A is for superior mastery of the subject. If you want to have an A in the class you have to master the material.” From the slightly less motivated student I often receive the email at the end of the semester. It’s usually as simple as, “Hello father, I worked really hard in your class and I thought I deserved an A.” My response to that email is always the same “Dear X, you should have tried harder. God Bless, Fr. Fonseca.”

     Look I get it, grades are important if a student wants to move on, get into a good college, get a great job, and have their dream life. But stop and listen to what we just said. Grades are only important because of what they get us. Is this really the way we are called to live life? No, academics is about so much more than the end grade, in fact, the real success of education comes from the journey and not necessarily the end results. As a student for 28 years of my life I have come to learn that true education is about the journey not the end result.

     To protect my reputation, I won’t ask Lynn to tell you what my grades were like in 5th grade, but I will say my grades have risen at every level of study I have undertaken. I was a B student in high school, a B+ student in undergrad, an A- student in my 4 years of general theology graduate school, and I was elected by the faculty as the top graduate student of my 3rd master’s degree program. Trust me, this was no accident. I can honestly say I was able to achieve such a high level of mastery in my fields of study only because teachers pushed me and encouraged me earlier on in school, rather than just pushing me through with A’s that I didn’t really deserve.

     I remember very clearly writing my first college paper for Composition 101. I wrote the paper the night before, resigned to the fact that I would take the gentleman’s B. Imagine my surprise when the paper was returned to me with an A for a grade. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how I earned an A. It certainly was not my best work and I had never received an A in high school English. After handing the paper back, the instructor had us trade papers and peer review each other’s work. Pretty quickly I came to realize that I received an A, not because I had turned in A work, but because everyone else’s work was so bad mine looked really good. I rightly deserved a B on that paper but since the instructor had to have good grades posted at the end of the semester, my lazy performance was awarded with an A when I should have been called higher to actually produce superior work. Sure I got an A on that paper, but I have felt better about B papers than did I did about that A paper because in those B papers were an actually expression of my abilities are were the result of a labor of hard work and learning rather than just a wasted exercise in the game of school.

     As a teacher wouldn’t you rather a student struggle with a harder concept or write a harder term paper than simply settle for the information they know and get the easy A? Which student is more successful, the student who aced (A) a concept that was too easy for them or a student who achieved and average (C) or maybe even an above average (B) on a work that helped the student learn.

     As educators, I’m afraid we are not immune to this either. How often have we made a test easy to boost grades in our class or given a nice curve on an assignment so most of the students receive a good grade? Every time the grade becomes the focus of the way we teach or the way we evaluate, I’m afraid we buy into the lie that it’s all about the ends and in so doing we actually fail our students. We can never forget that “we’re not called to get results. We are called to be faithful.”[2] After all, “a person’s true stature is not based on the greatness of his works, but on the acknowledgement that everything comes from God.”[3] Simply giving a student an undeserved A only inflates his ego without challenging him to cooperate with God’s grace to achieve their full potential. Said in another way giving a student an undeserved A fails to help them reach their ultimate goal of sainthood.

     As I looked back over my schooling, I realized that my grades got better as I advanced in school because I finally, in the last two years of my undergraduate studies, began to focus on the journey and not the end result. In high school I was the student who could calculate the least amount of work I needed to do to get by with the desired end result. In my junior year of college, I encountered a world famous philosophy professor who challenged me not to worry about the grade, but to take time pondering the questions and focus more on my growth in knowledge and less on the grades. In the words so often attributed to Mark Twain (but really belongs to the science writer Grant Allen) “what a misfortune it is that we should thus be compelled to let our boys’ schooling interfere with their education!”[4] I knew the transformation was complete when I agreed to take an independent study Latin course from this professor in graduate school knowing full well that I would not receive an A, but knowing it would help me be a better theologian. That Latin independent study solidified my language skills and even helped with my ability to read Spanish which ultimately led me to finding the key source for my MA thesis; a thesis that is still talked about in professional circles today, and just last month was the subject of an hour long show on a national Catholic radio show, 8 years after I defended it.

     Look, the purpose of our being here is to form saints. Becoming a saint is hard work and that hard work means sometimes we have to learn through failure. Ultimately “it is by his sound choices, by his manner of facing up to his objective situations, by his way of taking his place in the society where he lives and assuming there his personal responsibilities … or by suffering – that the Christian is placed in authentic relationship with God, confronted by God’s will and that he must with his brothers approach God and render him service.”[5] Thus, if we want our students to have that authentic relationship with God, sometimes we have to make sure we hold the bar high so that they are challenged to make sound choices, face up to objective situations and take their place in society through personal responsibility. Perhaps there even has to be a little suffering, or certainly some sacrifice involved in both learning and teaching.

     Today, as we stand on the verge of another academic year, I think we need to pause for a few moments and ask ourselves if we are focused solely on the end or on the journey. We need to stop and ask ourselves what our attitude towards grades is. Do we find our fulfillment simply achieving good grades in our gradebook at the end of the year or is our fulfillment found day in and day out in pushing our students to achieve greatness, to become saints. I often tell my students, I already have enough friends and that I’d rather be respected then liked, because if they like me, there’s a good chance I am not pushing them hard enough.

     Think about those teachers from your own education that you admired the most. Were they teachers who simply gave you a good grade? As I think back on my education, I realize how blessed I was to study under some world class scholars who helped shape me into the person I am today. Did I ever get the easy A from them? No. Did their classes require extra work? You bet. In fact, most of them were the teachers everyone said to stay away from on because they were too hard or required to much work, but it was precisely in that hard and busy journey that I found myself and felt compelled to strive for greatness, to strive for sainthood.

     When we view education through the Catholic lens, we recognize that while there are many things that separate students from teachers there is one thread that perfectly unites us.  I hope each of us recognizes that our goal, the goal of our students, and thus the goal of our teaching is heaven. It is that desire for sainthood that levels the playing field between us who are supposed to be the experts in our subjects and our students. Thus, Cardinal Ratzinger was right when he said “All arithmetic and writing is useless if they (students) do not know the purpose of their lives; if they do not learn why we are on earth and if this knowledge does not produce freedom, serenity, and goodness.”[6] One does not achieve that freedom, serenity and goodness by getting good grades, but rather by wrestling with difficult material, asking tough questions, and overcoming difficulties along the way. At the end of our lives you and I will not be judged by how many A’s we gave out, or how many positive reviews we received on, but rather we will be judged on how we used the precious little time we had with our students to help form them into saints.

     While we certainly need to act for an end. For, Jesus warns us against starting without planning when He asks “which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion. Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work, the onlookers should laugh at him…”[7] But Jesus then goes on to remind us that in working towards the end we must focus on the means of achieving that end when he concludes His sayings on discipleship with the famous charge “for in the same way, every one of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.”[8] For you see discipleship isn’t simply about desiring heaven. No, being a Christian is about the moment to moment decisions to follow after Christ. So, then we can never lose track of our goal of forming saints, but we must spend time reflecting on the day in and day out way that we form saints.

     Since “our first step to sanctity is realizing nothing in this life is worth so much as our becoming saints”[9] we, as educators, have to step back and ask how does that desire for sainthood come across in the witness of my life and in my day to day teaching? Have you stopped to ask how your teaching inspires your students to sainthood? How are you as a teacher a saint maker?

     Ultimately, as we stand on the cusp of another academic year, and we prepare to continue our work as saint makers, I think today is a great opportunity to stop and ask why are we teaching here and then assuming our motives are pure to ask ourselves if our teaching fulfilling that end.



[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), §1759.

[2] Charles Chaput. Render Unto Caesar. New York: Image. (2012) Pg. 196.

[3] Christoph Cardinal Schonborn. God Sent His Son: A Contemporary Christology. San Francisco: Ignatius (2010). Pg. 231.

[4] Grant Allen. The Woman Who Did. Boston: Roberts Bros, 1895. Pg. 15.

[5] Cardinal Albert Vanhoe. Our Priest is Christ. (1969) Pg 42-43.

[6] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Dogma and Preaching Applying Christian Doctrine to Daily Life. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011. Pg. 371

[7] Luke 14:28 -29

[8] Luke 14: 33

[9] Albert Joseph Mary Shamon. Three  Steps to Sanctity. Oak Lawn: CMJ Marian Publishers and Distributers (1993) pg.1.

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