It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this week’s column that I am convinced our Catholic schools provide quality education for all who attend them. Committed to the education of the whole person, they offer outstanding academic programs that provide our children and young people with the knowledge and skills they need to assume their role in the Church and society. Our Catholic schools, however, do more than this. They are our best vehicle for handing on our Catholic faith, a privileged place to encounter Christ and to be drawn by God’s grace to live as a companion and disciple of Christ.
The theme for Catholic Schools Week 2012 is “Catholic Schools: Faith – Academics – Service.” The theme focuses on three priorities that Catholic schools establish that make them stand out from other educational institutions. Our children are taught faith – not just the basics of Christianity, but how to have a relationship with God. Academics, which in Catholic schools are held to very high standards, help each child to reach his or her potential. Service, the giving of one’s time and effort to help others, is taught both as an expression of faith and good citizenship.
Most likely many of you understand the faith and academic elements that are vital aspects in our Catholic school programs. But perhaps you are not as aware that service is an essential component in our schools. Two Gospel passages come to my mind when I think of service. You may recall from St. John’s Gospel the account of Jesus washing the feet of His disciples. This gracious gesture has been captured by numerous artists throughout the centuries and is proclaimed each year on Holy Thursday. This annual retelling of the washing of the feet serves as a constant reminder that we are all called to serve others. “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:14-16). From the Master’s example, St. Peter and the other disciples learned the importance of service. So must we. So must our students. A disciple is one who serves as Christ served.
Matthew’s Gospel is clear also about the importance of service to our neighbor. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, promoting justice and comforting the suffering (cf. Mt 25:31-46) are works of service by which the disciple of Christ reaches out to others.
Service to others is planted in the minds and hearts of our Catholic school students from their earliest days. Service, in imitation of Jesus, is seen not solely as a humanitarian effort but more importantly and fundamentally as a consequence of our baptism. By the grace of baptism, we are “in Christ” and carry divine life within us. We become the bearers of Christ to others. We recognize that Christ has no other hands but ours to carry on His ministry of service. A prayer attributed to St. Teresa of Avila says it well: “Christ has no body but yours. …. yours are the feet with which He walks to do good; … yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world.”
We have a special responsibility, rooted in our baptism, to act as Christ acted. Jesus was concerned about the physical and spiritual well being of others. He tells us, on more than one occasion, that an authentic love of God requires love for others. To care for the neighbor is to care for Christ. And our eternal life depends upon this attention or lack thereof. “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40).
Pope Benedict XVI reminded us in his first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, that there are three constitutive elements to the Church’s mission: the proclamation of the Gospel, the celebration of the sacraments and the need to reach out with love and care to brothers and sisters in need. This lesson is taught, by word and example, throughout the course of a Catholic school education.
As you read this article perhaps you can travel back in time to those days when you learned the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. I still remember learning them in school; memorizing them and being encouraged to practice them by my dedicated teachers. The works of mercy give us very practical actions by which we can reach out to our neighbors, especially, but not exclusively, the neediest among us. The very names “spiritual” and “corporal” works of mercy remind us that our concern for others should address the totality of the human person. We are concerned about the bodily and spiritual needs of our brothers and sisters. Our children are not only taught the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. They are actively engaged in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, giving alms to the poor, comforting the sorrowful, instructing the ignorant and other actions by which they reach out to others.
In our Catholic schools, practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy takes many forms: regular visits to nursing homes; the collection of food for the needy; kindness shown to a student who is sick; assistance given to foreign missions; high school students helping younger students in tutoring; participating as an aide in parish religious education programs; praying for those who have gone before us with the sign of faith.
When our Catholic school students give their time and effort to help others, they are putting their faith into practice and living their call to discipleship. By so doing they will most likely experience the satisfaction and joy that accompanies good deeds. At a deeper level, however, our students are acknowledging the inherent dignity of the human person, made in the image and likeness of God. As they bring Christ to others, they recognize Him in those they serve.
There are many reasons to celebrate our Catholic schools. Certainly one of them is the integration of faith and life which leads our students to follow Christ’s example and reach out generously and unselfishly to their brothers and sisters in charity and service. May it always be so!
If you have an intention you would like me to remember in prayer during the coming weeks, please forward it to me at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, NY 13202.