The new academic year has begun at the Pontifical Faculty of Theology of the Immaculate Conception (PFIC). Following a Saturday morning orientation, students began classes on Monday, August 25.
This semester, over one hundred students are taking some forty classes in theology, philosophy, scripture, church history, and pastoral studies. Among those beginning their course of studies at the PFIC are fourteen Dominicans who made their Simple Profession of Vows in August.
The annual tradition of invoking the blessing of the Holy Spirit upon the studies and intellectual endeavors in the new academic year occurred in the early evening of Monday, August 25. The Mass of the Holy Spirit, held in the Priory Chapel of the Dominican House of Studies, was attended by students, faculty, staff, and friends. The homily was given by the President of the Pontifical Faculty, Very Rev. John A. Langlois, O.P. Prayer intentions included the benefactors, living and deceased, of the Pontifical Faculty.
Following the Mass, all were invited to a special dinner in the community refectory and cloister garden of the Dominican House of Studies.
The text of Fr. Langlois’ homily follows:
August 25, 2014
Readings: 2 Thes 1:1-5, 11-12; Psalm 96:1-2a, 2b-3, 4-5; Matthew 23:13-22
This series of woes and condemnations uttered by Jesus against the scribes and Pharisees might seem at first glance a bit out-of-place at this Mass marking the opening of a new academic year. After all, we usually like to start things off on a more positive note, whereas this Gospel is definitely not what we’d call “upbeat.” Nothing encouraging and affirming here! But then again, the Word of God is not ordered to making us feel good about ourselves, is it? The Word of God is meant to challenge us and call us to conversion. That being said, what do the woes uttered against the Pharisees have to do with us as teachers and students beginning a new academic year?
Well first of all, the scribes and Pharisees were the acknowledged scholars and teachers of the Mosaic Law. They were the experts who, through their many years of study and apprenticeship under master rabbis, were invested with the authority to interpret the Law and the Prophets for the people. Now Jesus certainly does not condemn them for being scholars. Their intense and devoted study of the sacred scriptures is in fact laudable. And certainly the Pharisees in particular were known for their zeal for observance of the Law as well as their desire to preserve the purity of the Jewish faith. That too was a laudable thing.
Yet, there are pitfalls to the scholarly life, even when the subject matter is something as good and holy as the scriptures. And it is precisely these pitfalls that the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day had fallen into. Jesus condemns them first of all for “locking the Kingdom of Heaven before men,” saying that “they do not enter themselves, nor do they allow entrance to those trying to enter.” What I think he is referring to here is an attitude of presenting revealed Truth as a measure by which to separate and exclude others rather than as a way of salvation. The Gospels are full of examples of the scribes and Pharisees condemning those outside the Law—tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners of all stripes. Rather than using their knowledge and their office as teachers to draw these people to the Truth, they instead determine that these people are not worthy of the Truth. Thus, they end up using their knowledge to lock others out the Kingdom of heaven.
A question for us, then, as we pursue the deeper study of theology and the moral life is how will we use that knowledge in our preaching and efforts at evangelization? While I think it’s safe to say that none of us would automatically exclude any group or individuals from our outreach, there is always the danger of presenting the Truth in a pharisaical manner, of presenting the Truth in more of a judgmental way rather than a merciful way. For example, it can be tempting to come down hard on people who are living in sinful situations, to in a sense “beat them with the Truth,” rather than patiently taking the time to present the Truth to them as the source of the happiness and freedom they are really seeking. Truth, without mercy, can be very hard and repellent. It can become a means of turning people away from salvation rather than bringing them into the Kingdom. In our study, then, we must be sure to avoid the pitfall of using our knowledge to exclude and separate others rather than to reach out and to save.
With the next “woe”, the Lord says that while the Pharisees will go to great lengths to proselytize and make converts, they end up making children of Gehenna worse than themselves. What I think he is condemning here is the tendency of the Pharisees to turn their converts into partisans who will “tow the party line.” In other words, their goal is not so much to bring people into a life-changing encounter with the living God as to get them to adhere to a set of rules and obligations and become loyal devotees of the Pharisaic party.
Here again, there can be parallels with ways that we might exploit our role as teachers for our own benefit. For example, while we seek to pass on the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas to our students and more broadly to the people we encounter in ministry, we must be careful not to turn our devotion to Thomism into a kind of partisanship that seeks primarily to win over more adherents to Aquinas rather than bringing more people to Christ through the teaching of St. Thomas. The same, of course, could be said for whatever theological perspective we might prefer. If our study and our teaching become more about ourselves, about advancing our particular agenda or theological perspective and winning others over to our cause, then we are falling into the same trap as the Pharisees. Our work as students and teachers will only bear fruit if we keep the true end in mind. The end of our study is God himself, and our growth in wisdom and understanding may only validly be put to use in his service, for the salvation of all those who do not yet know the truth or who choose not to live according to the truth.
So as we begin this new academic year, we should most certainly strive for excellence in our study and scholarship. But we should also keep in mind that our deepening understanding of Sacred Truth through study is meant not only to expand our intellects but to expand our hearts as well. Our deepening growth in knowledge of God should correspondingly result in a deepening love for Him and for our neighbor. For at the heart of our study as well as the sharing of the fruits of our study with others must lie the fundamental understanding the God wishes all men to be saved. That and that alone should guide and motivate our scholarship, our teaching, and our preaching!