Catholic school administrators, faculty and staff gathered on September 7th for Mass at Holy Cross Church in DeWitt to mark the beginning of the new school year. Bishop Cunningham was the main celebrant and homilist for the liturgy. In addressing the specific character of Catholic schools as “a person not a theory or lofty pedagogical methods,” the Bishop acknowledged the indispensable role of administrators, faculty and staff as authentic witnesses to the beauty of the Gospel and the splendor of the Church. The full text of the Bishop’s homily is printed below.
In mid August I read an article by the Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, the office which assists the Holy Father in carrying out his responsibilities with regard to educational institutions. Cardinal Zenon Grochoewski noted in his article that “only the Catholic University that conserves its Catholic identity will have a future.” Although the Cardinal was speaking about Catholic universities, I immediately thought about our Catholic schools and about what I might share with you today.
Every school is a place of integral formation, a privileged place where the organized and critical assimilation of culture occurs. Every school must consider absolute values and seek to insert them into real life situations with which students are familiar. Every school must develop persons who are responsible and inner directed, capable of choosing freely in conformity with their conscience. Every school is an institution where children and young people gradually learn to open themselves up to life as it is, and to create in themselves a definite attitude toward life as it should be. Every school must be a community whose values are communicated through the interpersonal and sincere relationships of its members and through both individual and cooperative adherence to the outlook of life that permeates the school. (cf. The Catholic School, Sacred Congregation of Education, #26-31)
Our Catholic schools must do all of the above; but they must do more. What is the specific character of Catholic schools? Christ is the foundation of the whole educational enterprise in our Catholic schools. His revelation gives new meaning to life and helps our students to direct their thoughts, actions and will according to the Gospel, making the beatitudes the norm of their lives. Our Catholic schools are committed to the development of the whole person “after the mind of Christ.” Herein lies their specific character: to cultivate human values in accordance with the Gospel, the words and deeds of Jesus. The specific character of our schools is a person, not a theory or lofty pedagogical methods. Our schools work toward the organized and critical assimilation of culture and the total formation of our students guided by a Christian vision of reality. Their aim is to form students in virtues which will enable them to live a new life in Christ and help them to play faithfully their part in building up the Church and society.
During his pastoral visit to the United States our Holy Father very simply but clearly noted the unique character of Catholic schools. “First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth. This relationship elicits a desire to grow in the knowledge and understanding of Christ and his teaching. In this way those who meet him are drawn by the very power of the Gospel to lead a new life characterized by all that is beautiful, good and true; a life of Christian witness nurtured and strengthened within the community of our Lord’s disciples, the Church.” (Address to Educators at Catholic University of America, April, 17, 2008)
You, our Catholic school administrators, faculty and staff, play a central, indeed, a vital role in our schools. If our schools are privileged places in which students encounter Christ and open themselves up to His transforming love and truth, if the values of the Gospel are the absolute values that are integrated into all the subjects which are taught in our schools, if our schools are communities of faith where like-minded people support one another in the practice of our faith, our schools need dedicated administrators, faculty and staff who are living witnesses to the Gospel. The prophetic words of Pope Paul VI ring as true today as they did more than 30 years ago: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” (Evangelization in the Modern World, #41)
Your example is crucial if our students are to gain a genuine experience of Christ and the Church. The more completely that you give authentic witness to the person of Christ, to His words and deeds and to the Church and its teachings, the more likely will your students become committed followers of Christ and active members of the Church. We know that children and young people value authenticity. They recognize hypocrisy. While their demands are high, perhaps sometimes even unreasonably so, if you fail to model fidelity to the truth and virtuous behavior, then even the best of curricula cannot successfully embody a Catholic school’s specific character. (cf. The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools by Archbishop Michael Miller, p. 58)
I want every student in our Catholic schools to have the opportunity to know and love Christ, to encounter the beauty of the Gospel, to experience the splendor of the Church and the guidance of its teachings and, eventually, to become disciples, followers of Christ and His revelation. Your example, your living witness is indispensable if this is to be a reality. You must know and love Christ, accept the beauty of the Gospel and experience the splendor of the Church. Only as an authentic witness can you lead others to the truth and beauty of Christ.
This is a tall order. This is a lofty vocation and one which I, as your Bishop, responsible for the education and formation of those entrusted to me, share with you. We cannot fulfill this vocation on our own, with our expertise in pedagogy, our depth in particular subject areas or our effective interpersonal skills. We need God’s help. We need the assistance of His grace.
It is fitting, therefore, that we begin the school year with the celebration of the Eucharist. It is here, gathered in this sacred space, around this table, nourished by Word and Sacrament that we find the grace to fulfill our vocation as Catholic school educators. We cannot be all that we are called to be without God’s help. Come to this table often, be nourished by His Word and by His Body and Blood.
Today, I am celebrating the Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit. How appropriate that we use this Mass today. The Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church. It is the Church who explains the deep meaning of the teachings of Jesus and predisposes us to be open and receptive to the Good News. It is the Holy Spirit who impels us to proclaim the Gospel and causes the word of salvation to be accepted and understood. (cf. Evangelization in the Modern World, #75) And so we pray: Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful. Kindle in us the fire of your love.
Be assured of my profound gratitude for all that you do to preserve and strengthen the Catholic identity of our schools and most especially for all that you are . . . authentic witnesses to Christ and the transforming power of His revelation.