It was a monthly routine. One afternoon each month, we would meet for lunch at the same local restaurant. We would take turns saying the blessing and paying the bill. Occasionally, I would bring one of my sons with me if he was not in school. Over a meal and hot tea, we would spend several hours catching up; talking theology, ministry, family, and books; and simply enjoying each other’s company. We would swap stories, which would end sometimes in laughter and other times in a knowing silence. I would pick his brain and seek advice. He would reassure me that all was well, assist with writing countless recommendations for jobs, or look over a draft of whatever I was writing. I would offer a kind ear to him in return and ask how he was taking care of himself. It turned into a regular occurrence that we continued for 10 years or more.
Robert J. Schreiter (or “Bob,” as he convinced me to call him after many years and some exasperation on his part) was first part of a farming family in Nebraska; then a priest of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood; later a protégé of the late, great Edward Schillebeeckx; and ultimately a lifelong member of the faculty at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago until he passed away last June. Although he was globally renowned for his ministry in inculturation, intercultural dialogue, social reconciliation, and peacemaking in the aftermath of violence and genocide, to me, his was also a spirituality of mentorship. He mentored countless students throughout his life, and I was privileged enough to be one of them. This is one of the many ways that Schreiter lived in the “way” of Jesus, the way of the God who is “new each moment” (the phrase comes from his own mentor, Schillebeeckx).
Unlike Jesus, however, Schreiter did not seek disciples. But somehow we as students found him. And he accepted us and was generous with his time, talents, and person. He might email me from an airport after reading an essay on a plane. Or he may agree to meet for lunch during a 48-hour “layover” at home between giving a lecture on inculturation in Germany and flying to Rwanda to administer a workshop on social reconciliation in the aftermath of genocide. Mind you, all the while he was also teaching classes for hundreds of students, writing books and articles, serving on dissertation committees and directing theses, serving in a leadership capacity for his religious community, speaking and responding at international conferences, and mentoring many other students.
He did not seek “students” in the sense of a blank slate to write on or a lump of clay to mold in his own image. No, he wanted to teach and learn from flesh and blood human beings, in all of our internal contradictions, wounds, and idiosyncrasies. That is what a mentor does. A mentor is the wise one who teaches and learns simultaneously, taking joy in the process of give and take, feeling intellectually threat intellectually threatened by no one, and showing spiritual generosity to as many as possible. Schreiter integrated the intellectual work of many students into his own as well as the stories from the countless students he encountered. His life and writings overflowed with the stories he collected from students. In my case, the intercultural scholar in him always showed interest in the stories I would tell of the struggles of my in-laws who had emigrated from Seoul to East Los Angeles. The peacemaker in him listened to and advised me on my own journey of healing and reconciliation from severe childhood trauma. A few of my own stories ended up in his talks.
When a financial crisis hit my college and I was forced to transition to teaching high school, his support never wavered. He made sure I knew that he still wanted to meet for lunch and that our friendship was not contingent upon my being a professional academic. He followed my career change with interest as well as my change from an academic writer to a writer for a larger audience. As he read my essays for this very publication, he was convinced that I’d found my writing voice. He encouraged me to continue writing, because people needed to hear the theological voice I was providing.
From Schreiter, I learned many things that I practice with my own students. I may not be able to mentor my teenage students the way he mentored me. Different life stages require different forms of mentorship. Still, like Schreiter, I listen to and ponder the lives of my students. I hear their stories, questions, dreams, interests, and experiences before I attempt to “teach” them anything. I try to provide a safe space for them to be themselves, try out new ideas, and ask any and every theological question that might pop into their minds, no matter how strange or irreverent. I try to give them the space to voice their own trauma, if they feel so moved, through being accessible, honest, and empathetic. I try to assist them in transforming their trauma through discussion, accompaniment, the arts, and simply being heard.
Through Schreiter, I encountered teaching not as a process of filling an empty vessel with information but rather as one of accompaniment and formation of a human person into who God calls them to be. It is an ongoing conversation based on relationship and mutuality. Like Schreiter, I try to be an empathetic listener and share whatever words of wisdom and encouragement I possess. I try to accompany students in their formation into young adults and point the way to the “something more” in the world.
There is a saying that a lover is easier to find than a friend. Similarly, a teacher is easier to find than a mentor. And strong representations of “mentor-friendships” in popular culture are hard to come by outside of Albus Dumbledore and Harry Potter (an analogy my wife would use often to describe my lunches with Schreiter). The numerous examples in the Catholic tradition often remain hidden. It’s as if our U.S. culture and Catholic culture have both forgotten the importance of this kind of friendship.
In my own life, Schreiter advised my master’s thesis, taught me in independent studies in his office, guided much of my dissertation, wrote the forward to my book, inserted me into my first (and only) plenary speaking engagement at a conference celebrating Schillebeeckx, read drafts of most of my articles, and believed in me perhaps more than I believed in myself. He embodied a spirituality of mentorship. A mentor has faith in their students—perhaps more than they have in themselves—and empowers them to follow the “still, small voice” of God’s Spirit wherever it leads.
May we all be so blessed by a mentor-friendship. May we all learn to live as mentors to others when called. May we all follow in his footsteps.
This article also appears in the April 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 4, pages 45-46). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Courtesy of Catholic Theological Union