Ring the Bells: Christian Learning and Assessment
At my home parish of St. John’s in Worcester, something interesting happened a few years back. I noticed it one Tuesday at the daily Mass. At the moment of consecration, there were no bells. We always have servers who ring the bells at our church, so the silence caught my attention. The next day, when the moment of consecration arrived, again there were no bells. This seemed really odd to me. There had been no parish council meeting about the bells and no decision by the pastor to eliminate them as far as I knew. We are an inner-city parish that has experienced theft before, so that was a possibility. Still, I wondered, what happened to the bells? The third day at Mass, I was actively paying attention to the servers to see if the bells would be used. At that sacred moment, there were no bells in the sanctuary again, but then, from the back of the church, a man stood up with a bell in each hand and rang his own bells loudly and with gusto!
A few weeks later, the man saw me standing in the back of the church before a Sunday Mass and approached me. “You’re a teacher, right?” he asked. “I am,” I said. “I like teachers,” he replied, “When I was a kid I had a learning disability. Now they have good teachers to help kids like that, but not back then, so I didn’t learn to read.” I introduced myself, and he introduced himself to me. “Do you know what I love?” he asked with excitement in his voice. “No, what do you love?” “I love the bells at church!” he exclaimed. I laughed out loud. “I noticed!” I said. “Yeah,” he said, “but I bet you don’t know why.” “Tell me why,” I replied.
“When I was in Confirmation class,” he said, “We had to pass a test to prove we were ready to be Confirmed. When the day of the test came, the teacher put the paper in front of me and I couldn’t read a word of it. So I failed the test. But then the priest took me aside and said, ‘Listen, I’m going to have you serve Mass tonight, and if you ring the bells at the right time, I’m going to say you passed your test.’ And I did, and I passed!”
“That’s a really good reason to like the bells.” I said. “Keep ringing the bells!”
This story came back to mind as I reflected on today’s readings. The theme is simple, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” The priest understood the message. Where someone more rigid might have thought that “fair is fair” and everyone has to pass the same test in order to treat everyone equally and ensure that the religious education program meets rigorous standards, this pastor understood that our ways are not God’s ways. Our sense of justice and fairness is not God’s. Our measures of knowledge and success are not God’s. Our tests and exams do not assess what God assesses. I am so glad that this man had the benefit of having a true pastor when he was younger. Instead of being turned away, he was understood, accepted, and welcomed in.
Jesus told the parable of the landowner and the workers in the vineyard. To our sense of justice, the parable is upsetting. Those who worked all day deserve to be paid more; or, those who were hired at the last hour deserve to be paid less. Instead, Jesus says that the landowner was not only fair, but generous, and only greed and indignation at seeming inequalities makes the laborers grumble. “Are you envious because I am generous?” the landowner asks. Jesus summarizes the parable by saying, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
From an educator’s perspective, this parable and the story of the man with the bells at church both remind me of the need for differentiated educational strategies. Everyone has equal dignity. Everyone has an equal right to a religious education. But there are multiple intelligences and we are all differently abled. Good teachers are like the landowner and the pastor: both recognized the needs of the individuals involved and didn’t allow a standardized system to dictate their strategies. In teaching and in life, the words of Pope Francis are apt: “We must always remember the person.”
Photo credit for the altar bells: P.RAZZO/CIRIC