It is that time again! Soon our children and young people will be returning to school. “Back to School” undoubtedly evokes a variety of responses. Parents may be looking forward to the return of the school schedule and the routine it provides. Students may be looking forward to being with friends, from whom they were separated during the summer, and to resuming school activities. Teachers, most likely, are anticipating new students, perhaps a new grade or course assignment and the challenges and joys that each new school year provides. Probably some of us are even thinking about our own carefree Back to School Days. The Psalmist captures this sentiment when he prays, “I thought of the days long ago and remembered the years long past” (Ps. 77:6). However, as I thought about “My Place in the Sun” column for this week and its “back to school” topic, it was not memories from that past that provided ideas for the column but rather hope for the future as I considered the relationship between evangelization and our Catholic schools.
Evangelization is a term we hear frequently today. Pope Paul VI addressed evangelization in his apostolic exhortation, “Evangelization in the Modern World.” The exhortation was a summary statement for the work of the Bishops who attended the Synod of Bishops on Evangelization in 1974. Blessed John Paul II frequently spoke about the “new evangelization” in his writings and speeches. Likewise, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, often refers to evangelization and has created a Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization (somewhat akin to a new cabinet position in Washington) to ensure that the work of evangelization remains central in the life of the Church. In our diocese, evangelization has been an important consideration at meetings of the Diocesan Pastoral Council. Most recently, in the budget process for 2011-12, each diocesan department and office was asked to present its budget request in terms of how the ministry of the department or office supports and advances evangelization.
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. It is eminently personal because it is the proclamation of a person that requires a personal response. Jesus Christ is the proclamation and He offers to everyone, who receives Him in faith and lives according to His Word, strength and guidance for daily living and eventually the joy of eternal life. The task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church. Evangelizing is the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity (cf. Evangelization in the Modern World, # 14).
Our Catholic schools are vital instruments of evangelization. Certainly, they provide students with the human knowledge and skills that are necessary for them to assume their role in society. But our schools do and are so much more. Catholic schools, through the instruction they offer and the example provided by teachers, administrators and others in the school community, are “a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth” (Address to Educators of the United States, Pope Benedict XVI).
This encounter with Christ is fostered by instruction in our Catholic faith and practice which is clear and systematic. The encounter 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 faculty, staff and administrators, radiating in simple and unaffected ways their faith in values that go beyond current values, and their 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.
Any genuine encounter with Christ recognizes Him in the members of His Body. Our Catholic schools provide numerous occasions when students can reach out beyond themselves to the needs of 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. Through service to others, students gain “a fuller understanding of and communion with humankind, events and things. Knowledge is not considered as a means to material prosperity and success, but as a call to serve and to be responsible for others” (The Catholic School # 56, Sacred Congregation of Education).
The Catholic school is a place where the Gospel is proclaimed; a place of encounter with the living God. This encounter bears fruit as the Gospel is listened to, accepted, assimilated and shared. This adherence to Christ and His manner of living renews humanity and society is transformed.
We are blessed to have in our diocese six Catholic high schools and 22 elementary schools serving approximately 5,600 students. Soon these schools will be open for a new school year and students will be “back to school.” Realistically, our Catholic schools face numerous challenges, including changing demographics, rising operating expenses and dwindling financial resources. As we address these challenges, we need to keep in mind the connection between the Church’s mission of evangelization and the Catholic school. If the Church is to fulfill its mission, if it is to proclaim Christ at every level of human society, the Catholic school remains a vital instrument of evangelization. For those of us responsible for the oversight and implementation of our Catholic school programs, it is imperative that they be truly “places of encounter” with Christ. Let me be clear: despite the challenges our Catholic Schools face they remain a cherished means by which the Church fulfills her mission.
If you have an intention you would like me to remember in prayer, please forward it to me at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.