A new school year begins

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Cunningham_formal_robes

On September 6, at Holy Cross Church in DeWitt, I celebrated the Mass of the Holy Spirit with our Catholic school administrators, faculty and staff. The homily I preached on that occasion is printed below.
It is that time of year again, isn’t it? Although January ushers in the new calendar year, teachers and school administrators know that there is another “beginning” to the year… the one that falls during the opening days of September and marks the start of the new school year. Within a day or two you will meet your students and once again return to the routine, the challenges and the joys of another school year
I think the way we begin our school year speaks volumes about who we are as Catholic school educators. We begin the school year cognizant that we are not isolated individuals but members of a community of faith that need, indeed must, gather at the Lord’s Table to be nourished by His Word and Sacrament. The education and formation of our children and young people are very important, so important in fact that we recognize the need for God’s grace, not only today but every day, to realize the mission of our Catholic schools. At this table of Word and Sacrament we find the nourishment we need for the journey of a new year.
The readings chosen for today’s Mass set the tone for the beginning days of the school year and all the days that will follow. In the first reading, the prophet Ezekiel speaks a word of hope to the exiles in Babylon. God will bring them back to their own land, cleanse them from all their transgressions and above all give them a new heart and a new spirit so that they can live by God’s statues and decrees. …“you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezk. 36:28).

We know the promise of a new heart and spirit is fulfilled in the covenant accomplished by Jesus’ death and resurrection. This covenant is not written on stone tablets, but resides in contrite hearts that find their true life and meaning in Christ. This new covenant is best described in terms of a relationship. If you love me and keep my word we will come to make our
home in you (cf. Jn. 14:23).
Our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, has told us that every educational institution is “a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth” (Address to U.S. Catholic Educators, Pope Benedict XVI). When a school is a place of encounter with the living God, it becomes, I believe, a sacred place. In this sacred place, God and the person meet. Students learn and experience what it means to live in relationship with Christ and with the members of His Body. They are drawn, by the power of the Gospel, to lead a new life characterized by virtue. In this sacred place, students hear and see what it means to live the covenant relationship with God … a relationship which is never exclusively between God and the individual but always includes “the other.”
This leads me to the second reading from the first Letter to the Corinthians. Saint Paul reminds us about diverse gifts and different forms of service that are bestowed by the same Spirit and Lord so that the body may be built up and formed into Christ. How important it is today to teach our children and young people that they are not isolated individuals who can live as if the world revolved around them; that they are called to think not exclusively about the “I” but about the “we.” And where will they learn this? I hope from their parents and others responsible for their development. Most certainly they must learn it in our Catholic schools. And you are the ones that are entrusted with the responsibility to make it happen not only by your words but also by every gesture of your behavior.
In our Catholic schools, students should be exposed to a community of faith which teaches and nourishes them, challenges and encourages them to use their gifts for the sake of the Body of Christ, their brothers and sisters, both those within the school community and those well beyond its boundaries in their neighborhoods, their city and even the world. In our schools, students should gain a fuller understanding of and communion with humankind, events and things. Knowledge should be recognized as a call to serve and to be responsible for others (cf. The Catholic School #56, Sacred Congregation of Education).
The Gospel reading gives us a glimpse of Jesus at the beginning of His public ministry. Jesus is the preeminent evangelizer. Evangelization is a term we hear frequently today. Simply put, evangelization is the proclamation of the Gospel to everyone, at every level of society in which the human person lives, so that the power of the Gospel can transform humanity from within and make it new. In our Gospel today, Jesus is the herald, the one who is announcing the Good News to the poor, the captives, the blind and oppressed. And don’t these categories describe the human condition? At times, we are captive to our own shortcomings and failures, blind to the realities of faith and hope that should enlighten us and oppressed by burdens that appear insurmountable. Christ announces He has been anointed “to bring glad tidings” (Lk. 4:18) and “today,” He proclaims, these words are fulfilled in Him (cf. Lk. 4:22). Our Catholic schools are vital means of evangelization. In this sacred place, the Gospel is proclaimed and the encounter between our students and the living God occurs.
And when, you ask, does this proclamation and encounter happen? It happens when you offer your students clear and systematic instruction in our Catholic faith and practice. It is further developed through the integration of the Gospel and the rich heritage of our Catholic faith into all subject areas so that students’ criteria for judgment, their values, interests, and thought patterns, their sources of inspiration and models of life are rooted in our Catholic faith. The encounter deepens as students experience the members of the school community, especially you, the faculty and administrators, radiating in  simple and unaffected ways your faith in values that go beyond current values, and your hope in something that is not seen and that one would not dare to imagine. The encounter is strengthened by the opportunity, within the school environment, to participate in Mass, the reception of the sacraments and daily prayer. It happens when students recognize and respect the presence of Christ in their brothers and sisters and reach out to them as Christ would do.
So much of what our Catholic schools do and are depends upon you. Without a doubt, your professional competence is required. When we are dealing, however, with the total formation of our students, conduct is always more important than speech. The more completely you give concrete witness to the model of the ideal person that is being presented to the students, the more this ideal will be believed and imitated. For then it will be seen as something reasonable, concrete and attainable. “Students should be able to see in their teachers the Christian attitude and behavior that is often so conspicuously absent from the secular atmosphere in which they live” (Lay Teachers in Schools: Witness to Faith, Sacred Congregation of Education). Saint Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel and if necessary use words.” Centuries later Pope Paul VI said that a person “listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if the person does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelization in the Modern World, # 41).
Archbishop Sambi, the Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S. who died last month, was a keynote speaker at the National Catholic Education Association Conference in 2007. In his address, I think the Archbishop captured the heart of your mission as Catholic school educators:
“ [A] young man, 22 years old, once took a piece of marble and sculpted in it two of the most deep human sentiments: suffering
accepted from the hand of God does not diminish the beauty of the human person but increases it, and – the second sentiment – even in death, a son continues to have full confidence in his mother.
“This is the Pieta of Michelangelo that you can see every time you enter the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome.
“Michelangelo, sculptor of the Pieta, is considered one of the greatest artists in the world. I don’t believe it! The greatest artists are the educators — are you — because you try to sculpt the best of yourselves, of who you are and what you know, not in a piece of marble, but in living, breathing human beings, who are the glory of God.”
Dear teachers, staff and administrators, it is a joy for me to begin the new school year with you in the celebration of the Eucharist. As you know, Eucharist means thanksgiving. I am indeed grateful to God for all He has given us through His Son. This gratitude extends to you, the living witnesses that transform school buildings into sacred places where God dwells. Thank you for your commitment to our Catholic schools. Be assured that I accompany you throughout the coming year with my prayerful support. During the course of the year, return often to the Lord’s Table. Here you will receive the grace you need to be your best self… a person living the covenant relationship, using your gifts to build up the body of Christ, proclaiming Christ in a real and tangible manner so that your students will become “living, breathing human beings, who are the glory of God.”

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