By Ignatius Plato
Teaching young minds is a crucial part of the Jesuit tradition. But for Audrey Merck, teaching young hearts is just as important.
Audrey Merck is the head of the theology department at Jesuit High School in Tampa, Fla. (Jesuit Tampa), where she collaborates with other educators to ensure Tampa Jesuit students receive more than just a solid academic exposure to Catholicism; they witness the faith lived.
Merck herself was not Jesuit educated; her enthusiasm for Catholic education came by way of the Franciscans. So, when she arrived at Jesuit Tampa to teach freshman Theology, she found herself learning the history of the Society of Jesus alongside the students as she taught.
What really sold Merck on the Jesuit experience were the Jesuits she worked alongside.
“Learning about St. Ignatius of Loyola and the founding of the Society was cool in and of itself,” she says. “But seeing how the Jesuits present on our campus live that history – the charism of Ignatius – that’s what ultimately drew me in. To present theology to [our students] as a legitimate course, while also still educating their hearts not to fall into a culture of nothingness, is one of the biggest challenges we face. We focus on giving them a solid Catholic education, and we are always asking ourselves how to best accomplish that when there is so much going on in the world.”
These dual responsibilities present the main challenge for Jesuit Tampa’s Theology Department. “Bridging the gap between their minds and their hearts is a difficult balance to strike. Teaching our students how to be men who are not apathetic – there’s not a rulebook for that.”
To this point, Merck explains how she emphasizes the importance of bridging the gap between mind and heart. “To be a teenager nowadays! The world tells them that they have a choice but doesn’t tell them what the choices are. At Jesuit, we propose a clear choice: Christ, in and through the Catholic Church, because only He can ignite and satisfy our hearts.”
The role of the faculty and staff, she says, is to be the guidepost for letting students make a definite choice without feeling coerced into it.
“The beauty of Jesuit Tampa is that we are all very devoted to the students. They are witnessing Catholicism through their teachers’ example. Even if a student does not understand what is happening at Mass yet, for example, they understand that their science teacher, who faithfully attends Mass, really cares about them. In a similar way, the Theology Department proposes the Catholic faith through what we do and who we are, and not in a way that feels forced or suffocating.”
A heart-and-mind approach to Catholic education at Jesuit Tampa gives Merck hope that the world can change for the better. “I don’t think there has to be a massive institutional or philosophical change in the world. I think that actions directed toward a desire for Christ would affect all parts of the world.”
Merck believes it is up to today’s students to make the needed changes.
“There will always be powerful men in the world, and our boys will probably be leaders in the world at some point in their lives. But if we can educate them to be powerful men who are aware of their hearts – men whose hearts and actions are directed toward Christ in everything – I think that would change everything in turn.”
Audrey Merck’s philosophy for educating the heart and mind will be reflected in the choices her students make, and she is aware of how her role at Jesuit Tampa affects that.
“I would like to see our boys graduate with a strong sense of who they are, who God has made them to be and a desire to be more aware of themselves in order to be more aware of God in themselves and in the world.”