Every fall, at the beginning of my undergraduate course “Exploring Catholicism,” I ask students to compose a religious self-portrait. I invite them to consider their sense of God, their experience of liturgy, and their present faith stance. I assure them that what they write will not be graded.
The purpose of the exercise is to allow me to gain some understanding of who they are and the perspectives they bring to the course. The weekend I spend reading through their submissions is one of the richest of the semester...and the most humbling. The students are invariably honest in their sentiments, searching in their questions, serious about their hopes for themselves and the world in which they live.
I learn something about the evolution of their religious ideas, the persons who have influenced them, and, not infrequently, the tragedies they have already experienced: parents or relatives lost in the Twin Towers, dear friends dead far too young, relationships that have seemingly failed.
What is both astonishing and consoling is how a phrase heard when they were young-from a teacher, a homilist, in a reading-can remain with them, like seed sown in fertile ground, bringing forth fruit in a providential season. It is almost as though the words bear a spiritual charge, a “surplus of meaning,” that will be more fully disclosed later. Perhaps it was thus for the prophets of Israel, as their half-formed...