In recent times, there has been a big emphasis in education on building self-esteem. This, of course, has carried over into catechesis, such as when we begin teaching three-year olds the refrain “I am special.” A recent study (link no longer available) reveals, however that this emphasis has led to an increase in narcissistic tendencies. My concern is, if we are all so special, then who needs salvation?
Of course, self-esteem is important. But so is humility. As Catholics, our self-esteem is grounded in the fact that God loves us, despite our sinfulness. Our self-esteem is not a celebration of self but a celebration of God’s steadfast love of us, despite our sins. At the Annunciation, Mary did not respond by saying, “I am special!” but rather, “My soul glorifies the Lord.” It is no accident that we begin Mass by praising God (opening song) followed by an admission of our sinfulness (Penitential Act). Then we praise God more in the Gloria (not during Lent, of course!) emphasizing YOU alone are the Lord, YOU alone are the holy one, YOU alone are the most high. Not me. YOU (God).
I continually remind my students that all of us are sinners and that we are so blessed to be loved and redeemed by Jesus. Whenever we pray, I ask the students to recall our sinfulness and to be thankful for God’s redeeming love that calls us to grow and change. If we simply keep telling our students how special they are, they will conclude that they have no need of redemption. Therein lies the wisdom of Ash Wednesday, that stark reminder of who we really are: sinners in need of and blessed with redemption!
As catechists, we must love our students and we must help them have a healthy self-esteem. But we must do so not by leading them to think that they are perfect but rather that they (and we) are so blessed to be loved in all of our imperfection.
P.S. I find it interesting that the role of the court jester in medieval monarchies was to use his license to mock and speak freely in order to keep the monarch grounded.