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- President of SIGNIS India Receives International Peace Prize
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Angela Ann Zukowski’s tribute to Rev. Pierre Babin
Focus on a Catechetical Pioneer: Reverend Pierre Babin, OMI (February 25, 1925 - May 9, 2012)
Dayton, May 20, 2012 (Sr. Angela Ann Zukowski, MHSH, D.Min) Fr. Pierre Babin, OMI passed away on May 9, 2012. A recipient of the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL ) Life Time Achievement Award, he was an international pioneer and leader in catechesis in the 20th century.
Fr. Babin was a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (France), a pioneer of group media (photo-language), an expert in psychology-pedagogy, explorer of social networking, author and researcher. He taught at the universities in Lyon, Paris (France), Strasbourg (Switzerland), as well as St. Paul’s University (Canada), St. Thomas University (Florida) and the University of Dayton (Ohio). Internationally, he was renowned for his innovative vision for defining a new approach to catechesis in a media age. He founded an international research and training center in religious communications - CREC AVEX, Ecully (Lyon), France.
Whether he was developing strategies for teaching adolescents about religion, producing radio shows or engaging photo language, he believed catechists needed to use more than books to address issues of faith, religion(s) and culture. As the digital era and Internet became a dominant culture, Babin explored their meaning and impact. Ever intuitive, curious and prophetic in mind and heart, he pioneered new media terrains with enthusiasm. For over 60 years Babin understood the power of media and technology in society and inspected their applications for promoting faith formation and inter-religious dialogue.
In a 1995 Christmas letter Babin referred to the charism of the founder of the Oblates who stated that “We must dare everything” and those words always inspired Babin to venture into new catechetical pathways to animate faith.
Pierre Babin was born in 1925 in Paray-le-Monial, France. During the Second World War, German soldiers were stationed in the village of 8,000 people. Babin indicated that their presence ignited caution, fear and trepidation among the people. In this context Babin belonged to a group of young French resisters who, as he would say, “engaged in dangerous activity and games against the Germany Army by sabotaging their huts and helping prisoners to escape, or pass over the borders to freedom.” At the age of 17, he escaped from the occupied zone, headed toward a small town in southern France called la Blachére and entered the novitiate of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
During his scholastic studies, Babin became very sick and was sent to Corsica to rest. The pastoral landscape and people offered a healing presence for Babin. It was there (1943-1944) that he picked up a book about St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In a flash St. Bernard’s words captured Babin’s imagination: “You will learn more in the woods and fields than in a book. Fields and woods will teach you many secretes that no person can ever reveal to you.” This single insight ignited new fire within him. He was ready to discover a new way of animating the minds and hearts of young people to discover God.
Babin perceived his Corsica days as a “paradisial experience” in a country with extraordinary beauty and close contact with the population. He expressed his experience as “the archetype of Jesus with his disciples along the mountains and Sea of Galilee.” He said, “During those days of my scholasticate, the camp-mission experience gave me a new model of evangelization and the media. This does not mean that we had media but in Corsica I began to understand the basic elements of what constitutes the relationship of language and the media culture. Through sound, image, gesture, immersion in nature and reflection on village stories, I realized a new way for getting in touch with a deeper reality (mystery).”
Babin did not perceive himself as a specialist in theology, but only as a developer of a technique. Nevertheless, he was encouraged when some theologians told him that he had a deep sense of theology that went beyond any systematic approach. With this comfort, he set in motion dialogues with different theologians, even seeking them out to confirm or criticize his new way of thinking about communicating the Good News in a new media age.
Reflecting on the works of Karl Rahner, SJ, and Babin said: “He was not one of my teachers but his theology enhanced my thinking because it is deeply pastoral and rooted in experience.” Babin’s studies at the University of Lyon introduced him to outstanding theologians and entrepreneurial thinkers, such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who ignited Babin’s investigations into the “all holy” in creation, preparing the ground for Babin’s famous “The Symbolic Way”. Lyon was the center for creative theological investigation in the 50’s and 60’s, and Babin delighted in immersing himself in flowing conversations.
In 1949, he was ordained and finished his theological studies. He was named chaplain at a Catholic high school in Lyon. While ministering to youth, he developed a new Gospel sense of community and a deepening awareness of the power of Gospel symbols. He said, “I began to discover the symbolic way of faith, to realize that young people needed to experience the Kingdom of God.” During this time in Lyon, he began a two-year study in psychology. He studied Jung and Freud, investigating their ideas in relationship with Christianity. He became acquainted with the progressive catechetical works of Joseph Colomb, a Sulpician. His preoccupation quickly focused on a new way to teach which emphasized “being fully alive.” The key was to completely rethink how to present the Good News to youth in a media age.
As early as 1957, Pierre Babin was a pioneer in the catechetical movement. One of his lectures at the time, Catechesis for Adolescence , emphasized that evangelizing means transmitting a direct and personal message to the whole person, to the heart and not just to the intelligence. The catechist’s language, as well as whole being, should be part of the message. This emphasis on heart, emotions and feelings (experience) was somewhat suspect by Church leaders in France, but Pierre continued lecturing and publishing books in the same vein: Crisis of Faith (1963) and Faith and the Adolescent (1964). “We must dare everything!” continued to be the mantra for his pioneering initiatives.
In Strasbourg, Babin encountered Leon Barbey, a Swiss pedagogue, who deepened Babin’s curiosity for linking human development with spirituality. Several of Babin’s first publications were highly influenced by Barbey: Book on Friendship (1967) and Methods (1968). Options (1965) was perceived by Babin to be his systematic expression arising from the experiences of his first catechetical experiences with youth. These books were eventually translated into a number of languages and used as primary texts in catechetical formation programs around the world.
Taizé offered Babin a richer experience as he was contemplating a new methodology for spirituality and catechesis. Years before the Taize Community entered the international scene, Babin connected with Brother Roger Schultz, founder of Taize. Inspired by the Taize ecumenical way of life and prayer, Babin integrated the Taize experience within his personal spirituality and the CREC AVEX program he founded in Lyon. This was reflected in the arrangement of his liturgical space (small prayer chapel) and in the evening community prayer to which he invited guests from the neighborhood, visiting CREC AVEX lecturers, students and friends. The ambience - icons, light, tone, smells, posture, and music, chanting of psalms with a small community - reflected a merging of Taize within Babin’s spirituality.
Babin’s media research introduced him to Marshal McLuhan (Canada). In his book The New Era in Religious Communication (Babin and Iannone 1991), Babin explains how the encounter with Marshall McLuhan changed his philosophy and orientation toward teaching. Babin said, “Originally, I had regarded media as external instruments. Little by little, my conventional understanding of the media and audiovisual methods changed. The more I contemplated this new revelation, the more aware I became that people were audio-visually oriented, so that we could no longer speak to them as we had spleen in the past.” McLuhan had inspired him to re-examine the function of communication, including the communication of faith. McLuhan helped Babin to understand that technology, or more specifically the audiovisual medium of communication, is the key to understanding our contemporary culture and the evolution of a new human consciousness.
In 1999, addressing the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Babin said, “I believe that we must radically rethink our pastoral methods, in the same way as the revolution which occurred as a result of t he discovery of print technology and culminated in the Council of Trent. We have been invited not to a superficial restructuring of methods, but rather to what has been termed a change in the priorities and paradigms of pastoral work. We must do with the electronic media what Luther and Canisius did in their time with the printing press when they invented the catechism, seminaries, etc.” Later in Babin’s evolutionary thought, the Internet became the determinant media that would reshape the world into a “global village.” The concept of the “global village” enabling us to mobilize the hopes and imaginations of the people to recreate the world with the slogan, Unity in Diversity, was deeply rooted within Babin.
A prophet not only in his own time but in ours, Babin appreciated the inevitable rapidly evolving media (digital) era and its impression on young people. In The Gospel in Cyberspace: Nurturing Faith in the Internet Age (Babin and Zukowski 2002) Babin attempted a new leap to understand the emerging influence of the Internet and faith formation. He was intuitively reading the signs of the times and prophetically preparing catechists for a radical 21st century catechetical paradigm shift. His message was clear and simple: What many young people are looking for in faith is not so much knowledge as healing and spiritual fulfillment. The special characteristic of the symbol, the image and sound is that if produces affects that are not so much normative and cerebral as emotional and even physical; therefore, they tend to spread from one body to another and from one person’s feelings to those of another.
It was not Babin’s desire to merely create another methodology for catechesis. He sought to “stir into flame,” “to move the spirit,” or, as Babin often said, “to awaken the soul.” The shift from intellectual ascent (of the text - the catechism), to a living, experiential reality that “shook - like an earthquake” the entire being, influencing not only the individual but the community (through symbols, sacramental reality and animated sense of community) was the hopeful reality Babin perceived and spent his life work striving to realize.
How did Babin perceive his particular contribution to the field of catechesis? In an interview, he said: “Once a mentor of mine said, ‘Okay, Pierre, so you have projects in life, but you must follow the inner voice within yourself.’ So, I tried to listen to this inner voice always and not to be too preoccupied with many projects or my future. It is important always to be ready to follow a mystery. By listening to God day by day, in accordance with the grace of each period of history and each culture, one can catch something of God’s voice and reflect something of His presence. I want to trust my experience of mystery, to be open to its revelation and to reflect it back into the lives of the people I encounter each day.” Babin continued to be faithful to this vision throughout his life. He did ‘dare everything’ and has left us with the message “We must dare everything!” for moving catechesis forward in the 21st century! Priest, pioneer, colleague and friend - thank you!
(Sr. Angela Ann Zukowski, MHSH, D.Min., former president of Unda, was a colleague and personal friend of Fr. Pierre Babin. Quotes referenced in this article are from interviews with Babin over the years.)