6/26/22 Homily: Apprenticeship
Updated: Aug 9, 2022
Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
Years ago, I had a conversation with an art student visiting Rome who had asked my opinion on art and architecture, and which museums and masterpieces to see, because… I’m very opinionated, and because I had been living there for a few years.
So I made a few recommendations. But during that conversation, we touched upon something that benefited the masters of the past that isn’t as prevalent today. Namely, a culture of apprenticeship.
The master artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods were all apprentices first. Their talent was cultivated and honed through years of discipleship under the previous generation of masters. That kind of culture isn’t as commonplace today.
Apprenticeship has been known by other names: mentorship or internship or discipleship. There are subtle differences between them, but they all point to the same thing: that relationship between master and apprentice, between mentor and student, between Lord and disciple.
Our readings today invoke this relationship. In our first reading today, we hear about the call of the prophet Elisha, not to be confused with the prophet Elijah. Now, Elijah, as you may remember, was somewhat of the OG of prophets. There was a time when he was the last remaining prophet of the Lord, after the foreign queen Jezebel had all the prophets of the Lord annihilated and replaced them with her own prophets of the false gods, Ba’al and Asherah.
This is the same Elijah who had lived with the widow of Zarephath in the land of Sidon for three years during the great draught and famine. He’s the Elijah who had rebuked King Ahab for his apostasy. On Mount Carmel, he defeated 850 false prophets and had them put to the sword. Eventually, he would be taken up bodily into heaven in a chariot of fire.
But Elijah’s mission wasn’t complete until, at the command of the Lord, he called and mentored his successor, the prophet Elisha. Elisha wasn’t called to go to a school of prophecy; he was called to be discipled under Elijah. Through that or apprenticeship, Elisha himself would eventually be ranked among the greatest prophets of Israel. He’s the Elisha whose intervention cured the Syrian general Naaman of leprosy.
In our gospel passage, we see how the disciples continue to show how they need to be mentored by the Lord. The scene today strikes me as somewhat comical. Keep in mind that this is year three of Our Lord's ministry, during which he time and again preached about loving one's enemies and praying for those who persecute you. But what do we see?
Our Lord is preparing to enter into Jerusalem for the last time with his disciples. When they're insulted by a certain Samaritan village, what do James and John say? “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?" Our gospel narrator is quite tactful in simply saying, "Jesus rebuked them, and they continued their journey."
That rebuke came in the living context of discipleship in practice. It wasn’t part of some case study in some school of a pharisaic tradition. It wasn’t learned as a theory in an ethics class. Jesus taught his disciples as their master in the context of their journey together as events unfolded.
Others were called to this journey, but as we heard, many couldn’t commit to that relationship between master and disciple. But for the few who were called and chosen, Jesus personally mentored his disciples for three years before commissioning them to make disciples of all nations.
Mentorship, discipleship, apprenticeship—whatever we might call it, that relationship provides the crucial link between knowledge and applied practice. Knowledge is something we acquire in many ways, but integrating and applying that knowledge requires something more. That something has historically been apprenticeships.
Today, we do still have technical or trade schools and medical internships and on-the-job training, but schools have largely replaced apprenticeships in the way that they once existed. I don’t know if that’s a good thing. And the apprenticeship we do see today typically happen when people are in their twenties or thirties. Michelangelo formally started his trade at 13 years old, as an apprentice to the artist Domenico Ghirlandaio. He went on the produce the masterpieces we still have with us today.
Apprenticeships aren’t limited to trades. That relationship between master and apprentice begins in the home. It begins as we’re initiated into our humanity. Think of children. Children learn honesty, fair play, sharing, how things work—many things—in the context of relationship. We don’t give a four-year old a copy of the Nicomachean ethics to read. We teach them ethics and manners as we go along, in the context of daily life.
God bless all of our parents who take the time necessary to teach their children as events in the day unfold, and in response to the questions their children ask as they observe things in ordinary life. That’s what’s needed to mentor a child into their own humanity.
Fathers and mothers are the mentors of their children. That transition from boyhood to manhood requires that crucial relationship between father and son—or at least a father figure. A daughter learns womanhood from her mother—or grandmother—before she herself mentors her own daughters one day. These kinds of relationships seem hardwired in us.
Like it or not, parents are the first educators of their children. That’s what the Church teaches. Homeschooling seems to be a growing reality. It’s a beautiful thing for a parents to personally teach their children. But even in families where that isn’t possible, it’s still crucial for parents to take ownerships of their children’s education by actively participating in the life of their school community, by being aware of and reviewing content being taught to their children, and by being in dialogue with school administrators and teachers.
Our faith especially demands this relationship of discipleship. It’s not enough to send our children to a Catholic school, or to CCD or any other religious education. It’s not enough to know the doctrines of our faith. We’re called to live by them. We’re called to worship.
Children watch how their parents worship, how they prepare for Mass, how they make the sign of the Cross, how they pray, how they participate. Parents mentor their children in the faith through their personal example. They’re learning how to be disciples of Jesus right now just by watching their senior disciples, we their parents and other adults. At this Mass and at every Mass, let’s show them how it’s done.
Raphael's Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, c. 1509-1510. Fresco, Apostolic Palace, Vatican