Indifference to Encounter


Screet shot of Urbi et Orbi homily, March 27. 2020.

In the face of worry or giving in to fear, celebrating this Easter is counter-cultural.

By Colleen Swaim

We are accustomed to a culture of indifference and we must strive and ask for the grace to create a culture of encounter, of a fruitful encounter, of an encounter that restores to each person his or her own dignity as a child of god, the dignity of a living person. (Pope Francis)

It started with some wondering: What might Pope Francis’s call to encounter have to do with how we communicate? In particular, can our love of hearing a good story, the testimony to one individual’s experience, be linked to why and how we become informed about the world around us?  When it came time for my sophomore world literature classes to demonstrate their command of MLA, abilities to synthesize sources, and understanding of the means of expression in different modes of writing, my course teammate and I knew that we wanted to build upon our school’s 10th grade curricular focus on community and guide students to research and craft narrative and informative writing through the lens of moving from Indifference to Encounter. The goal is to, guided by Catholic social teaching, learn about and inform on a particular global topic after being inspired by the witness of a person who has been directly affected by it. Effective student writing could mean an audience would be graced by this encounter, as well.

Most any teacher can relate to the tiny miracle that happens when a unit germinates in the mind and actually makes it into the classroom. Ours did early in the third quarter of this school year, and back then we really were teaching it in brick and mortar classrooms populated by students every semester since 1957. As a class, we considered a writer’s purpose, the role of advocacy, and how, indeed, a person’s testimony can be an opportunity for encounter, a vehicle for advocacy, and a force for goodness in the world.

We are now all using words like “distant,” “remote,” and “(a)synchronous” as my students continue their research and writing, banishing indifference through encounter. With the move to different learning strategies in our dioceses, our regions, and our nation due to Covid-19 protocols, I can’t help considering the questions that seem essential now that we’ve had an almost overnight transition to teaching and learning from our homes: With our increased and understandable focus on embracing home life, how might we live the Culture of Encounter from within our domestic churches? Beyond hand washing and social distancing, what are the best ways to consider the other and banish indifference?

My answers have come wrapped in a profound gratitude for the lens Catholic education gives, both to everything we valued before this virus gripped our families and how it lends itself to what we treasure even more now. Jesus is still our Savior and the saints keep offering us personal witnesses to the joy and hope that is encounter with Him. They lived through grief and loss and, whether it is a loved one who is sick or a school building we’re realizing we will not be coming together in again this school year, we need their testimonies. Catholic school communities support students and their families in considering the hard questions we humans face, and yet we always go back to rekindling our resilience through a renewed commitment to fostering goodness and looking for the beautiful. This is our Christian call to live differently. It is why we educate in Catholic schools.

The liturgical year is a holy rhythm for our beautiful and messy lives in the best of times, but this Lent is a gateway to encounter each other through the works of mercy with an outlook full of what IHM sisters call “creative hope.” We must resist falling into despair or the notion that our colleagues living out different stations in life than ours have a smooth road through this emergency learning shift. Instead, we are called to recognize that, just as each of our students’ lives and situations are uniquely challenging during this time, our fellow faculty and staff members are also living out both their callings to Catholic Education and their individual vocations. For all teachers, from Gen Z to Baby Boomers, who are single or married; living with kids (babies to college, and beyond!) or without; are new to professions in education, middle career, or veterans to this thing: No one has an easy path.

In some ways, Eastertide 2020, forever liturgically imbued with hope and the call to live the joy of the Resurrection, promises an even greater challenge than Lent during this time of global suffering and turmoil. In the face of worry or giving in to fear, celebrating this Easter is counter-cultural. It is central to our call to live differently and, as Pope Francis has urged us, to “ask for the grace to create a culture of encounter.” Whether this Easter is intentionally reconnecting with members of our own household, holding our celebrations via Zoom, or creating moments of stillness to be with our risen Lord, His rising from the dead is an invitation to community and the root of why we are Catholic Educators.

A native of the Washington, D.C., area and a graduate of The Catholic University of America, Colleen Swaim resides in Maryland with her husband Matt and their son. She serves as Mission Integration Specialist and English Teacher at Bishop Denis J. O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. For the last fifteen years, she has taught high school English and religion in the Dioceses of Arlington, Virginia and Covington, Kentucky. After writing two books exploring teenage saints, Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints and Radiate: More Stories of Daring Teen Saints, she collaborated with Matt on Your College Faith. 

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