“What Are You Doing Here in Idleness? Teach the Children”
by Mary Ann Kreitzer
In the Gospels, Jesus welcomed the children and they flocked to Him. Of course they would because he was a great storyteller. And He no doubt had stories especially for them, stories that taught about God and great moral truths on their own simple level. Jesus who enthralled the crowds with the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, no doubt had endearing stories for the little ones as well, stories to capture their hearts and win their love for God. And in every age Jesus sends His apostles forth to do the same as the story of teacher and seer Adele Brise illustrates.
On December 8, 2010, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay decreed “with moral certainty” that the Blessed Mother appeared to the young Belgian immigrant, Adele Brise, in 1859 in the town of Robinsonville, WI (renamed Champion later at Adele’s suggestion after her town in Begium). Bishop Ricken’s decree made the shrine of Our Lady of Good Help the only approved Marian apparition site in the United States.
The messages to Adele Brise occurred a year and eight months after the more famous apparitions to Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France. While Lourdes became famous almost immediately, the Robinsonville events remained relatively unknown outside northeast Wiscon-sin for over a hundred years. Many, like myself, only recently learned of the apparitions when Bishop Ricken declared them “worthy of belief.”1
Adele was 28 and living at home with her parents when Mary appeared to her three times in October 1859. On the first occasion Adele was on her way to the mill with a sack of flour when she saw a lady all in white standing between two trees, a maple and a hemlock. Frightened, she stood still until the lady disappeared leaving only a white mist behind. The next Sunday on the way to Mass at Bay Settlement, eleven miles from home, in company with her sister Isabel and a neighbor, Adele again saw the lady although the others did not. As before, she was frightened and remained still until the apparition disappeared. The little group continued on to Mass where Adele went to confession and told the priest, Father William Verhoef, what had happened. He urged her not to be afraid, but if she saw the lady again to ask who she was and what she wanted of her.
On the way home, Mary appeared for the third and last time. Sr. Pauline Plant, to whom Adele later described the events, writes:
"As they approached the hallowed spot, Adele could see the beautiful lady, clothed in dazzling white, with a yellow sash around her waist. Her dress fell to her feet in graceful folds. She had a crown of stars around her head, and her long, golden, wavy hair fell loosely around her shoulders. Such a heavenly light shone around her that Adele could hardly look back at her sweet face. Overcome by this heavenly light and the beauty of her amiable visitor, Adele fell on her knees.
“In God’s name, who are you and what do you want of me?” asked Adele, as she had been directed.
“‘I am the Queen of Heaven, who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same. You
received Holy Communion this morning, and that is well. But you must do more. Make a general confession, and offer Communion for the conversion of sinners. If they do not convert and do penance, my Son will be obliged to punish them.”
“Adele, who is it?'' said one of the women. “O why can't we see her as you do?” said another weeping.
“Kneel,” said Adele, “the Lady says she is the Queen of Heaven.” Our Blessed Lady turned, looked kindly at them, and said, “Blessed are they that believe without seeing. What are you doing here in idleness…while your companions are working in the vineyard of my Son?“
“What more can I do, dear Lady?” said Adele, weeping.
“Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation.”
“But how shall I teach them who know so little myself?” replied Adele.
“Teach them,” replied her radiant visitor, “their catechism, how to sign themselves with the sign of the Cross, and how to approach the sacraments; that is what I wish you to do. Go and fear nothing. I will help you."
The manifestation of Our Lady then lifted her hands, as though beseeching a blessing for those at her feet, and slowly vanished, leaving Adele overwhelmed and prostrate on the ground.2
Adele responded immediately by visiting family farms in the area to instruct the children. Her father built a simple 10’ x 12’ log chapel. Later, a larger chapel, a convent, and a school were also built on the site. As time went on the shrine at Champion became a place of pilgrimage, primarily for the Belgian community. Later its fame spread more widely.
In 1871, the same day as the famous Chicago fire, a devastating fire also engulfed the area around the shrine. The “great Peshtigo fire” as it came to be called killed about 2500 people. The sisters were determined not to abandon the chapel and as the flames (Cont. on p. 5) drew closer they took refuge there. Many local families joined them even bringing their livestock to the property. While the fire raged, those inside the chapel processed around the sanctuary with Our Lady’s statue and prayed for protection. When the fire was over the only area in Robinsonville that survived unscathed were the five acres consecrated to Our Lady with the chapel, the school, and the convent. The fire had scorched the fence, but did not penetrate to the shrine itself. Even the animals on the grounds survived.
There are many stories of miracles taking place at the shrine although none has received the rigorous testing needed for authentication. In 1887 however, Fr. Vojtech Cipin who led a pilgrimage there gave an eyewitness account of a Polish man near death from diphtheria who experienced a complete cure.3
Over the years the teaching apostolate at the shrine grew to include a boarding school, later converted to a home for crippled children which closed in 1953. Sr. Adele, who died in 1896, left an impressive legacy.
Mary’s missionary call to “Teach the children” is as important today as it was 150 years ago, while the challenges are much greater. Teachers compete against a world hostile to religion, institutions that no longer support the family but actually attack it, and technology that threatens to smother children in noise and attention-grabbing distractions. But God is ever faithful and nothing is impossible with His help.
The primary educators of children are their parents, which is certainly the case where religion is concerned. It’s a truism to say faith begins at home, but unless parents devote themselves to transmitting the faith to their own children they will fail in their primary duty as parents. No parish program can teach the faith in an hour a week. If parents don’t teach and live it at home, the faith will likely be lost, not only to their own children, but the generations after them.
Fr. John Hardon, S.J., who died in 2000, often stressed teaching the faith when he spoke at conferences and workshops around the country, and, in fact, he did not limit educational responsibility to instructing children. “Our primary duty [as Catholics],” Father said, “is to share our faith with others.” Father described that duty as the greatest example of love. “What is love,” he asked, “except providing for the needs of others…. If people are hungry and we provide them with food to eat, we are practicing love towards them. People are thirsty and we give them to drink. They are naked and we clothe them; or sick or in prison and we visit them. But what is bodily hunger or thirst or nakedness or loneliness compared to these needs in the soul! And the most fundamental need of the soul is for possession of the truth which means possessing the faith….That is why the most fundamental duty of our lives is to communicate to others what others have so generously passed on to us, namely the true faith. The key factor here is the word ‘true.’ Every rational human being believes in something, in fact believes in many things. The main question is whether what a person believes is the truth.”4
So our duty is clear. We are to teach the truth. As believing Catholics knowing the truth is the easiest part of the task. It is found in the deposit of the faith as taught by the Church throughout her history. We can look to Scripture, the Catechism, Church documents, the Councils, the Fathers of the Church, etc. What is more difficult is to ensure that the teachings are received and embraced by those who hear them. That, of course, is not in our control. Even Jesus, the master teacher, was rejected, by both the crowd and his own disciples. So the question is, how can we teach most effectively?
First, we need to know our audience. A few years ago Catholic apologist Joanna Bogle addressed a group of university students at Oxford through the Newman Society on the topic Women in the Catholic Church with the subtitle Does the Church Oppress Women? She described her audience as “young practicing Catholics of the John Paul II generation.” While they did not embrace dissent or the language of feminist nuns decrying the patriarchal Church, Bogle found “they lack formation and a sense of belonging to a great tradition of teaching.”5 She used as an example their attitude toward the all male priesthood. She described the nuptial nature of the Church with Christ and his representatives as the Bridegroom to Holy Mother Church, the bride. “There really is a wedding theme going right through Christ’s life and ministry,” she told them, “as well as back to Genesis and forward into the vision of Heaven that we find in the last book of the Bible…. And the wedding is celebrated again and again at every Mass -- and at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in Paradise.”6
Several students were troubled and asked, in a non-confrontations way, about women who “feel called to the priesthood.” Bogle replied with a simple but profound statement. “To check whether our ‘call’ is from God, we have to test it against reality: to see if what we feel called to do is technically possible. If women cannot actually be priests -- if we cannot be the Bridegroom at the wedding -- then it is idle to say that we feel that we ought to be.”7
In the West, students have been brainwashed for years with two F words: feelings and freedom. It’s common to hear young people today describe what they “feel” rather than what they think. Often their “feelings” conflict with reality so they commonly say, “There is no truth except what I decide for myself.” This is the moral relativism that Pope Benedict described in 2008 as an “educational emergency.” Young people, have a difficult time finding "firm certainties and criteria upon which to build their lives," a situation that endangers "the very basis of coexistence and the future of society."8 There can be no firmness where feelings are concerned because, as C.S. Lewis quipped once, they may result from eating a bad piece of beef. Those who build their house on the sand of fleeting feelings will not weather life’s storms.
The second F word, freedom, is defined by Fr. Hardon as “immunity from determination or compulsion.”9 In other words, God made us so we could freely choose to love Him. He will not compel us, and our final end, heaven or hell, is not predestined. The way we use our “freedom” will determine the outcome.
Moral relativism, on the other hand, teaches that freedom is the ability to create our own reality because there is no binding truth. That is actually anti-freedom, summarized by the egregious phrase “freedom to choose.” That bogus freedom results in slavery, e.g., the person who is “free” to choose drugs, pornography, or promiscuous sex often ends up a slave to his addiction. The one who is “free to choose” a criminal lifestyle encroaches on the rights and freedoms of others.
We cannot compel those we teach to choose rightly. We can only speak the truth in charity and pray. But speak the truth we must. As for the best way to pursue the task of education, we need only look to those saints who were committed to it. My personal favorite is St. John Bosco who called his education method the “preventive system.” Its motto was “reason, religion, and loving kindness” and by this method he won the hearts of many of the hardened, street-wise urchins of Turin.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Don Bosco's method of study knew nothing of punishment. Observance of rules was obtained by instilling a true sense of duty, by removing assiduously all occasions for disobedience, and by allowing no effort towards virtue, how trivial soever it might be, to pass unappreciated. He held that the teacher should be father, adviser, and friend, and he was the first to adopt the preventive method. Of punishment he said: ‘As far as possible avoid punishing . . . . try to gain love before inspiring fear.’”10
John Bosco emphasized daily Mass, frequent Communion, and frequent Confession. He called them the “pillars” which “sustain the whole edifice of education.”11 Kindness was paramount, but he believed misguided permissiveness could spoil a child. It was important to form the will and temper the character but without breaking the spirit. He focused on identifying and developing the special gifts of each individual child through work and play. Music, he believed, helped in learning so the oratory had a good boys’ choir to chant the Mass and Vespers.
Don Bosco’s method was based on what I’ll call the three Ps: prayer, praise, and positive reinforcement. His sanctity was catching. One of his young pupils, St. Dominic Savio, died at fourteen already a saint. His mentor, St. Joseph Cafasso, another heroic priest, was canonized about a dozen years after his more famous protégé.
And so, like Adele Brise, we have the great commission, to go forth and teach. The call is not limited to the classroom. Our pupils are our children and grandchildren, our neighbors and friends. With love and charity and following the examples of Adele Brise, St. John Bosco, and great Catholic educators spreading the good news, there is no doubt we will touch many hearts with the truth. “Let the children come.”
1 Bishop David Ricken, Decree on the Authenticity of the Apparitions of 1859 at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help.
2 Sr. Pauline LaPlant, The Apparitions at Champion, WI.
3 Fr. Voltech Cipin, We Fly to Your Cloak.
4 Fr. John Hardon, S.J., Heart of Home Education: Teaching the Catholic Faith, The Real Presence Association.
5 Joanna Bogle, How Can We Teach the Truth (And Why It Matters), Voices On-Line Edition Vol. XXI no. 4, Christmas 2006 – Epiphany 2007.
8 Catholic World News, Moral Relativism at “Emergency” Level, Pope Warns., January 10, 2008.
9 Fr. John Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary.
10 Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Giovanni Melchior Bosco.