Students all over the country are digging in to study for their final exams. Pope Francis, in his Wednesday audience, spoke of the only final that will ultimately matter, the final judgment.
We all have a fear of failure. We hate being judged. The root of this is because we are conscious of own weakness, our frailty, our laziness. Fr. Paul Callahan, SJ, my favorite high school Latin teacher (and one of my greatest influences as a teacher) used to allay my exam fears by saying, “I wouldn’t worry, since, of course, you have been doing your work faithfully from day to day, with a weekly review…” and then throw a knowing Irish wink my way.
I had a student come in yesterday worried about her Latin grade. We dusted off the syllabus together and then ran the calculations. Her study was basically paralyzed because she feared failing the course. To her amazement, she could basically blow her nose on the final and not get an F. With that fear gone, she could concentrate on the business at hand: harvesting the work and consolidating the knowledge of a whole semester. Fear can be counterproductive.
And yet, there are others who are in danger of failing, and no soul is exempt from the final judgment. So how can we turn our fear into confidence, and escape the fear which can paralyze progress?
Pope Francis spoke of three reasons for hope in his Wednesday Audience, rounding off a series of talks begun by Pope Benedict about the Creed during the Year of Faith.
The first reason is that we are members of the Church, and all revelation leads to the celebration where the Spirit and the Bride say, “Come!” Especially in Advent, we consciously prepare for the joy of Christ’s embrace.
Teachers always have teacher stories. Here’s one of mine. A professor I had at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome used to say that exam day was la Festa del Pensiero (the Feast Day of Thought.) It was a chance to rejoice and show the fruits of one’s labor.
Knowing that we have prepared well should lead to confidence, but, in exams as well as the final judgment, it is not good to get cocky. The virtue of theological hope helps us to avoid both extremes: despair and presumption.
Pope Francis taught that a second reason for confidence is knowing that, in our judgment, “we will not be left alone.”
“How beautiful to know that, at that juncture, other than upon Christ, our Advocate before the Father (cf. 1 John 2:1) we will also be able to count on the intercession and good will of so many of our older brothers and sisters who have preceded us on the pathway of faith, who have offered their lives for us, and who continue to love us in an inexpressible way!”
Similarly, I can tell my students, “I can give you names of many people who have successfully completed this course. It is not impossible. You are in good company. Upperclassmen are ready and willing to help you!”
But I return to Fr. Callahan, who died in 1990 and whose picture is glued inside my old Latin dictionary. When he spoke of day-to-day work and weekly review, he was silently telling me two things. First, that he was aware that I cared and that I was trying. Second, that there is always room to work harder.
On Wednesday, Pope Francis told us all that the final judgment has already begun. “This judgment is pronounced in every moment of our lives, in response to our reception in faith of the salvation which is present and operative in Christ, or of our lack of belief, with the consequent closing in on our own selves. But if we close ourselves off from the love of Christ, we are the ones who condemn ourselves.”
I can’t speak for all teachers, but it is a sad day when I have to record a failing grade. I do so with a clear conscience, though, when I have offered all possible help and opened every access to success in the course. One very honest student last semester had such a moment of truth. I told him, “I am sorry but you know I have to fail you.” He replied, “No. I failed you.”
Jesus is my model as a teacher. He is both just and merciful. He will give us any extra help we need, but it is our task not to fail Him! There has to be effort on our part, and yet salvation is still a great and glorious gift. (Here the analogy breaks down. A student earns an A. We never merit heaven. It is always by Christ’s merits.)
As we continue to prepare for Christ’s coming this Christmas, even if we are taking (or giving) final exams, let us not let fear stand in our way. Let us renew our efforts to do our best in all endeavors and offer them to Christ with hope, as the fruit of our love.
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…” (1 John 4:18)