On my first day as a student of Theology the head of the department said proudly, ‘Here we DO Theology!’. Great I thought, however I soon discovered that ‘doing theology’ still involved a lot of inevitable ‘studying theology’!
Since coming to Africa I have become interested in a branch of theology called ‘practical theology’, it’s probably best aligned to ‘Pastoral Theology’ in the Catholic expression of our faith. It’s, as the name quite openly suggests, the practical application of theological theory. I suppose it could also be called ‘Applied Theology’ in the same way we have ‘Applied Social Sciences’ and ‘Applied Psychology’. Whatever it is, it is definitely ‘doing theology’.
The thing I have begun to notice about Practical Theology is that we are all really Practical Theologians. We are all called through our Baptism, in the Christian tradition, to make the spirit of Jesus Christ present in the world today in a real way and that’s what it’s all about. Now, I am not discrediting the academic branch of Practical Theology but rather to highlight that it is an expression of theology we are all involved in everyday as we engage with others with and open and compassionate heart, just as Christ himself did.
When our parents thought us to pray, where they not practical theologians? When a teacher thought us what was a good or bad thing to do, where they not practical theologians? When we serve others in our communities, neighbourhoods and families, putting their needs before our own, are we not practical theologians?
The Saints give us great examples of people who brought theology to life: St Francis of Assisi, St Don Bosco and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to name but three. These three giants of our tradition integrated the message of Christ and brought it to whoever they met: Francis tending the lepers, Don Bosco with poor children and Mother Teresa on the streets of Calcutta.
During my experience in Africa I have met countless people who are doing just the same. People who are practically becoming the hands, feet, ears and eyes of Christ, to paraphrase St Teresa of Avila. At home the same is being done every day in every community, family and home. We often do these things unaware of what we are doing and the trick is to begin to bring them into our consciousness so that when we do them, we can be conscious of our motivation as ‘Practical Theologians’ to be the hands, feet, eyes and ears of Christ.
We have all heard that we are all called to be Saints, for me this can seem a distant ideal. But I believe that we can begin, especially over Lent, to become more mindful and more aware of what we are doing, particularly when dealing with others. In doing this we begin to walk in faith with Jesus, begin to grow into the practical theologians we are called to be in this life and, you never know, we may even become Saints in the next life!
If we were to outline the model of practical theology what would it be? To outline the principles of practical theology, what would they be? The motivations behind practical theology, what would they be? There are countless answers and examples of this, the Gospels are just packed with them. I would like to briefly suggest on answer for each, that speaks to me.
A good model of practical theology for me comes in the form of Jesus coming down from Mount Tabor. Having experienced God the father and conversed with Him, Jesus knows he must return to those who await him at the base of the mountain. On coming down, I wonder how did Jesus see those we see around us today? The situations? The wars? The anger? and also the beauty and majesty of creation, the spark of which is in us all. To be a practical theologian in the world today is to endeavour, after being nourished by Christ’s Word and Body, to engage with the world that surrounds us, in such a way, that we see it and experience it as Jesus did when he came down from the mountain.
Some guiding principles to facilitate this move down from the mountain can be found in the words,’ I was hungry, you gave me food to eat; I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink; I was naked, you clothed me; I was lonely and imprisoned, you came to visit me’ (). Here we are presented with some practical instructions and, I am sure we would agree, good things to do. But moving upwards through the needs of a human being these commands begin to take on a new dimension and challenge us to come further down from our mountains and deeper into the waiting crowd. What are people really thirsting for today? What makes them hungry, deep inside? What strips them? What forces them to be bound, imprisoned and lonely? The answers are many but the next question is for us, ‘Are we ready to be there for them, no matter what their answers to the above questions are, just as Christ was and is through us?’
The journey to Calvary wasn’t an easy one and the journey to be a practical theologian in today’s world can be just as difficult, if we take it seriously. People have given their lives doing this for centuries. So what can motivate us along the way? One suggestion comes in the form of the Beatitudes or Be-Attitudes to see them another way. Seeing all those around us as Blessed is to see them as children of God and therefore our very brothers and sisters. The Beatitudes call us to see the weakness of others as their strength and the poverty of others as their riches. They call us to be salt and light, adding genuine flavour to the lives of others and to the world, just as Jesus did and continues to do through us today.
So now I have to leave my room to walk the way of the cross with the other friars. Today, I will try to make each step a conscious steps bringing me down from whatever mountain I have put myself on into the world, to be the hands, feet, eyes and ears to Christ, to be a practical theologian.