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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Marcus Mescher, Ph.D.

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism

Dr. Knight: You teach at Xavier University in Cincinnati, can you tell us about your work there?

Professor Mescher: Xavier is a Catholic, Jesuit liberal arts university, so theology plays an important role in the formation of every student. Our “Theological Foundations” course is required for all, regardless of major. I appreciate teaching this course for the opportunity to accompany students in exploring the presence and power of God in our midst, to mine the riches of Scripture and Tradition, and to use these teachings as sources of moral wisdom to address personal and social issues today. I never tire of hearing my students’ insights, questions, and new ideas for application. I also teach a variety of ethics courses on topics ranging from marriage and family to the environment to solidarity. Additionally, I teach in our graduate program, the Institute for Spirituality and Social Justice; I really enjoy equipping and empowering individuals called to ministry in parishes, schools, hospitals, and other settings. As a proud and grateful product of 14 years of Jesuit education, I am thrilled to be part of a mission with core values like: “Finding God in All Things,” to be “Contemplatives in Action,” to “Live a Faith that Does Justice,” and to be “Women and Men for and with Others” in the spirit of “Cura Personalis” (care for the whole person). Each day with my students is life-giving and I am in awe of the way God is at work in and through them as unique persons.

Dr. Knight: I am a University professor, now emerita, what in your background led you to choose teaching?

Professor Mescher: I have been Catholic educated since age 4 and throughout all those years, I had countless teachers who helped me cultivate a deep curiosity and love of learning. I have been blessed to have teachers who supported and encouraged me, who recognized capacity in me and helped nurture it. My favorite teachers were the ones who challenged me the most: the ones who pushed me to deepen my reflection, sharpen my critical thinking skills, and to consider an idea or problem from a variety of perspectives. In graduate school, I learned that theology is inquiry or investigation, a “refusal to call a halt at any point” into the Mystery we call God, as Karl Rahner says. I was also able to grasp even more deeply how education is part of the work of humanization: as we become more fully human, we become more like God in whose image we are made (Genesis 1:26). I wanted to pay that gift forward, recognizing that I would not be the same person without those experiences and relationships. I strive every day to be someone my students can count on to be passionate, to care about their wellbeing, and who wants to help coach them into discovering insights and abilities they hadn’t previously considered possible. Our church and world are places of great need, and it’s invigorating to walk with young people as we try to be agents of hope and healing together.

Dr. Knight: You’ve written a book in probably the most difficult time for most of us alive. What motivated you to get this done?

Professor Mescher: In a time when there are so many reasons for despair, too many examples of distrust, and so many experiences of division, I imagine God’s heartbreaking. When we look at the example of Jesus Christ, we see that God’s hope and desire is for union, peace, and love that knows no bounds. Jesus challenged categories of “us” and “them;” he undermined beliefs and practices orbiting around a distinction between the “worthy” and the “unworthy.” I wanted to write a book that would help open our eyes to the challenge of living up to the command that Jesus gives us: “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). That means loving without qualification or limitation. One powerful quote in my book is from Dorothy Day: “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.” That is a stark challenge, one we all should take to heart. We will inevitably fall short, of course, but discipleship is aspirational: we are a pilgrim people on the way, journeying together, aspiring for greater love that does justice, a peace that brings dignity and freedom, and a shared commitment to the global common good. My intention with this book is to offer some words of encouragement in trying to be Christ’s ambassadors in the ministry of reconciliation to mend the bonds broken by sin (2 Corinthians 5:17-20).

Dr. Knight: In your book “The Ethics of Encounter: Christian Neighbor love as a Practice of Solidarity” you begin with a beautiful quote by C.S. Lewis “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object present to your senses” Why did you choose this quote?

Professor Mescher: The first few lines in the Bible tell us that we are reflections and representatives of God in the world (Genesis 1:26). But we are surrounded by cultural anthropology that too often makes us doubt our dignity and value and makes others question if they count, matter, or belong. C.S. Lewis’ quote reinforces that we encounter Christ in every person we meet, the rationale for Pope Francis’ vision for building a “culture of encounter.” In Evangelii Gaudium, the pope reminds us that “the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction” and that all of this is part of the “revolution of tenderness” that Jesus initiated 2,000 years ago (EG, no. 88). As we confront a crisis of community in our cultural context, I wanted to emphasize that our neighbor is sacred and that we belong to each other as members of God’s single-family. That means we can’t be indifferent to the sufferings of others, or complacent with an unjust status quo. It also means we can rely on grace—God’s self-gift—every step of the way, as we try to see Christ in and be Christ for every person we encounter.

Dr. Knight: Your book title encourages a comprehensive framework for practicing encounters. This is such a challenging statement. Could you tell us a little more about this framework?

Professor Mescher: I have been inspired by Pope Francis’ call to build a “culture of encounter,” but he has not explained how we might do that in our time or place. I use the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) as a template for the kind of encounter that can help us overcome social distrust and division. By focusing on the Samaritan, I highlight five virtues—courage, mercy, humility, generosity, and fidelity—as guideposts for a moral framework that helps us move from a “culture of encounter” toward a “culture of inclusive belonging.” After all, the ultimate goal is not just that we encounter one another across differences, but that we establish relationships of mutual respect and responsibility in striving for personal and collective flourishing (based on human dignity and rights, participation in the common good, and practicing the principle of solidarity) as articulated in 130 years of Catholic social teaching.

Dr. Knight: In the section called “A fraying social fabric” I think you are able to pick up many of the concerns that have arisen as a result of the pandemic. Is this a way you see our social fabric fraying?

Professor Mescher: Yes, I think our preference for individual freedom over social duties has set us up for a rugged individualism that falls short of the kinds of relationships we see modeled in Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry. Jesus brought people together—not just Jews and Gentiles, but across all kinds of divisions—to show us there aren’t categories of “sinners” and “saints” but we are all sinners called to be saints. We have to recognize that rights imply responsibilities, that freedom is not the ability to do whatever one wants (that’s being a slave to impulse), but the gift of self to put others first (as Paul insists: “humbly regard others as more important than yourselves” in Philippians 2:3). We’ve created a culture of tolerance that makes room for the other, but does not necessarily take responsibility for the common good. Many people live by a mindset of “I do me, you do you,” but “live and let live” just as easily becomes “live and let die.” This contributes to what Pope Francis describes as a “throwaway culture” (Laudato Si’ no. 22), callous to the needs of the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. If we cannot see that we belong to each other, then we will focus only on our own needs, failing to respond to the least of our brothers and sisters, the ones Jesus identifies with himself in Matthew 25:31-46. We can’t forget that our Final Judgment depends on how we treat the ones in greatest need.

Dr. Knight: Some of the Catholic Universities have lost their sense of Catholicism. Do you feel/think your university has held onto the foundational issues?

Professor Mescher: Yes, I am proud to be part of a university community that honors the dignity and rights of each person and strives to glorify God by building a world that more closely resembles the reign of God. A lot of people see college as a stepping stone to landing a job, but when we treat education as a commodity, then students (and their parents) become customers seeking a good experience (or sound return on their investment) rather than a setting for personal and social transformation. I take seriously the claim of Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, SJ, the president of the Jesuit university in El Salvador murdered in November 1989, that the role of the Catholic university is to educate people who become more aware of reality so they can take responsibility for transforming it. Universities are important places for our society because they are places of inquiry and investigation, of academic freedom that helps us push the boundaries of our knowledge, stretch our imagination of what is possible, and build partnerships as problem-solvers. To do this through the lens of faith is a great service to our church and world.

Dr. Knight: Social media continues to transform our lives and during this pandemic, we are glad to have ZOOM in order to connect with each other. How has the media affected your life?

Professor: Mescher: Several pages of the book are dedicated to exploring the possibilities and limits of “encounter through a screen.” Many of us spend more time with screens than we do asleep (some studies show a growing number of parents spend more time on Netflix than their children!) and it is impacting our brain circuitry and emotions as well as our identity and relationships. In the middle of a pandemic, screens can be a lifeline, a source of connection that keeps us in touch with people who love us and those we love. They can also be windows into views and voices that we might not encounter offline. But screens can also become portals of distraction or escape. They can also reinforce blind spots when they serve as echo chambers, only confirming our worldview. Unfortunately, many people hide behind anonymous social media accounts and spread vitriolic comments that exacerbate reasons to feel distrustful or divided. We have to confront the abuses of digital technology and be careful that they complement rather than replace meaningful interactions and relationships offline. Screen time is definitely a moral issue. I try to be intentional about limiting screen time (for myself and for my children) and using screens as tools to be informed and engaged. It’s becoming harder to imagine life without screens, but that makes it all the more important to be mindful of how we use them and for what end/goal.

Dr. Knight: There is a wonderful movie about Mr. Fred Rogers when he asks: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” He asks with such gentleness and kindness and a sense that he really wants the person to answer the question. Would you comment about ‘won’t you be my neighbor?’

Professor Mescher: The more I read about Fred Rogers, the more I appreciate his work (you might appreciate this article about him, by the way). Mr. Rogers had a gift for helping us see the value in others, to make them feel like they are valued and belong. He helped us recognize the ways that relationships shape who we become and create our communities. We often discover our own goodness in the give-and-take of relationships; he once said, “When people help us to feel good about who we are, they are really helping us to love the meaning of what we create.” While this is a compelling insight, I think his question (“Won’t you be my neighbor?”) needs to be supplemented with Jesus’ question to the lawyer in Luke’s gospel (in the story of the Good Samaritan – see Luke 10:25-37), where Jesus asks: “Who was a neighbor to …?” It’s not enough to see the other as our neighbor; Jesus tells us that we have to be neighbors to others, to draw near them, to share life together. This is really what the “culture of encounter” leads us to put into practice.

Dr. Knight: What is the best aspect about being a Catholic University professor and the most difficult aspect about being a Catholic university professor?

Professor Mescher: The best aspect of being a Catholic university professor is the opportunity to keep learning and growing. I learn so much from my students; my job never gets old. Their insights and questions and ideas for application fascinate me. It is so edifying to help students find their voice and to use it in service to others. The most difficult aspect of being a Catholic university professor is when students are afraid to disagree, are confused about the difference between opinion and truth, or stuck in relativism that makes it hard to foster agreement and accountability on moral truth claims. If every viewpoint or argument is equally valid, then how do we know what is right or wrong? Jesus had challenging words for his followers 2,000 years ago, constantly trying to help them see, think, feel, speak, and act in new ways. Discipleship is ultimately a matter of conversion, a never-ending process. For some, that is too uncomfortable or intimidating to even try. But we can’t run from the challenge of metanoia, of conversion to loving better, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when we disagree, or if we don’t exactly know the way forward.

Dr. Knight: What are your hopes for the future of the Catholic Church and the Catholic university?

Professor Mescher: I appreciate Pope Francis’ vision of the church to be a “field hospital” more than a “fortress.” And yet, at a certain point, the church has to be more than a field hospital, because people need more than just immediate care. We need to be people of courage, mercy, humility, generosity, and fidelity—that is, people of inclusive solidarity who love our neighbors as we love ourselves—and that means confronting the wounds in our church and world head-on to not only bring healing but also better prevention. Our society trains many of us to be consumers and to treat everything like a Yelp review (to judge if it gives us a satisfactory experience or not), but being disciples means rolling up our sleeves and getting to work as co-responsible partners in mission. For example, we need to change the way some people view their local church as the place where sacraments get dispensed. That feeds into a consumer mindset (I show up, get the Eucharist, and come back when I need Eucharist again). “Liturgy” means “the public work of the people,” which implies that we all have a role to play and a contribution to make. Churches have to be places of belonging and responsibility. We have to help nurture people to grow into an adult faith so they see themselves as the church, not just people who go to church. Our parishes, schools, and universities should be partners in these efforts to help people take ownership of their faith and in building communities that reflect the mutuality and equality we see in our Triune God: love that is offered, received, and returned. If we see in the Trinity that God is a communion of love then we might better grasp what it means to be who God is in the world.

Thank you for helping us understand your unique yet communal journey on this earth in accompaniment with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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