Paulo Freire – Know, Practice, and Teach the Gospels (1977)

Fr. Maurice Morel
Christ on the Cross

[Source: Freire, P., & Hunter, C. (1984). KNOW, PRACTICE, AND TEACH THE GOSPELS. Religious Education, 79(4), 547–548. doi:10.1080/0034408400790406]

[From notes by Paulo Freire for four young German seminarians, written in Geneva, 1977.]

I am accustomed to say, independently of the Christian position that I have always attempted to hold, that Christ will always be, as he is for me, an example of the Teacher.

In my long ago childhood, in catechism classes, when a dear, but ingenuous priest spoke of the everlasting damnation of lost souls in the fires of an eternal hell, in spite of the fear which filled me, what really stayed with me was the goodness, the strength to love withouts [sic] limits, to which Christ witnessed.

Small boy, young person, and, finally, a man in whom the little boy continued to live, I was fascinated and continue to be fascinated by the indivisibility of the content of the Gospels and the manner in which Christ communicated them. Christ’s teaching was not, and could never be, the teaching of one, who like so many of us, sees himself to be the possessor of truth which he seeks to impose or simply transfer. He was himself the Truth, the Word that became flesh. As living history, his pedagogy was that of the witness to a Presence that contradicted, that both denounced and announced. As the incarnate Word, himself the Truth, the word that he spoke could never be a word that, once spoken, it could be said that it was, rather, it was a word that would always be coming to be. This word could never be learned if, at the same time, its meaning were not also grasped, and its meaning could not be grasped if it were not, also, incarnate in us.

This is the basis of the invitation that Christ made, and continues to make to us, that we come to know the truth of this message through practicing it, down to the most minute detail.

His word is not a sound that simply blows in the air: it is a whole way of learning.

I cannot know the Gospels if I take them simply as words that come to rest in me or if, seeing myself as empty, I try to fill myself with these words. This would be the way to bureaucratize the Word, to empty it, to deny it, to rob it of its eternal coming to be in order to turn it into a formal rite. On the contrary, I understand the Gospels, well or badly, to the degree that, well or badly, I live them. I experience them and in them experience myself through my own social practice, in history, with other human beings. From this proceeds the risky adventure of learning and teaching the Gospels as one continuous act; and from this comes the almost unbearable fear that assaults us when we hear the call of Christ to practice his message; from this come also the intellectualist rationalizations into which we fall and with which we make opaque that which is transparent; and from this comes our way of talking about the Good News without denouncing the evil that places obstacles in the way of realizing the Good News; from this comes our way of separating Salvation from Liberation; and from this, finally, comes our way of burying ourselves either in traditionalism or modernism, the most efficient way of being traditional, alienated, refusing the coming to be that bestows the power characteristic of the true prophetic position.

To know the Gospels through seeking to practice them, within the limits imposed by my own finitude, is, thus, the best way I have of teaching them. In this sense, only the practice of one who sees himself humbly as an eternal apprentice, a permanent learner of the Word, confers the authority, in the act of learning the Word, also to teach it.

This is an authority that never becomes authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism always results in the reduction of the Word to a mere sound. It is no longer a way of learning but becomes a negation of the pedagogical witness of Christ.