Beginning the school year

Cunningham_formal_robes

Cunningham_formal_robes

A new school year is upon us! On Tuesday, September 3, I celebrated Mass at Holy Cross Church in DeWitt for our Catholic school administrators and teachers. The homily that I preached on that occasion is printed below.

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness,
but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).

“For all of you are children of the light and children of the day” (1 Thes 5:5).

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket;
your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds
 and glorify your heavenly father” (Mt 5:14-16).

   Notice the progression in the Gospel passages just quoted. Christ is the light that dispels the darkness; in Him we become light; our light must shine so that others can meet Christ. When we share in the divine life, we light the way for others.

   I thought of these scripture passages when I read Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, The Light of Faith. Pope Francis tells us that when we believe, we see with a light that illumines our journey, “for it comes from the risen Christ, the morning star which never sets” (Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, 1).

   Faith is God’s gift to us. Through it we realize that a great love has been offered to us, a word has been spoken to us, most fully in Jesus, the Word made flesh. Ordinarily when someone speaks to us they expect a response. They do not want their words to fall on deaf ears. The same applies when God speaks to us. He awaits a response. We respond by listening to Christ, welcoming Him into our hearts and following Him. Thus faith is both a divine gift and our response to the gift.

   During the Year of Faith, we have been encouraged to rediscover our faith. What does this mean for you, Catholic school administrators and teachers? What does it mean to rediscover your faith? Does it mean to deepen your personal relationship with Christ? I hope so. Certainly faith has a fundamental content. There is information about our faith which we are expected to know and to pass on. Benedict XVI asked us, during this year, to revisit or perhaps visit for the first time, the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. However, all that we learn about our faith and all that we teach others about faith leads to a person, Jesus Christ. The object of our knowledge is communion with Jesus Christ.

   Our Catholic schools are special places where students “encounter the living God in Jesus Christ” (Benedict XVI, Address to Catholic Educators of the United States, April 17, 2008). No school can become that special place unless the people who work there have encountered the living God in Jesus Christ. A building cannot communicate this personal encounter. Only a faith community composed of living witnesses who are committed disciples of Christ can do this. As Catholic school teachers and administrators you have a particular responsibility to know, live and share your faith.

   Know your faith. As educators you are encouraged and, in some instances, required to participate in professional development. As you inspire your students to be life-long learners you need to be life-long learners also. Your professional development should include on-going faith formation. While the fundamental content of our faith remains the same — the Gospel, the Ten Commandments, the seven sacraments, the great mysteries of our faith — Eucharist, Incarnation, the Trinity and so on — it must be passed on with a clarity, conviction and enthusiasm that address the questions and cultural situations of our day. You must be well-versed in your faith, ready to answer questions and give direction and guidance to the children and young people for whom you are responsible.

   This is a tall order and it calls for your personal ongoing faith formation. We can always grow in our knowledge about our faith and thereby grow in our knowledge and love for Christ. This ongoing faith formation is applicable to all of you. Some of you may not teach religion classes but you all are expected to integrate the Catholic faith into the subjects for which you are responsible. The Church’s rich teaching on social justice issues has a place in your social studies classes; respect for the dignity of the human person must be the foundation of science and health classes which deal with life issues and the dignity of the human person; the conflict between good and evil, virtue and vice, human weakness and redemption are often encountered in literature classes. I think you get my point. You have to know your faith in order to infuse its meaning and teachings into the classes for which you are responsible.  

   Live your faith. A disciple hears God’s word and acts upon it. We are called to be hearers and doers of the word. I am sure you are familiar with the expressions, “Actions speak louder than words” and “By their fruits you will know them.” Both expressions highlight behavior, example and witness.

   When we welcome Christ into our lives we pattern our lives after His. When we become disciples we do not merely follow after Christ, we imitate Him. We act and speak according to the truth of the Gospel. We were taught by the good example offered by the men and women of faith who touched our lives. Likewise we must be visible signs of the faith we have received. When we live our faith we carry it, or more accurately, we carry Christ into the world — the world of our home, our neighborhood, our community . . . and for you, into our schools and classrooms. When we live our faith we are living signs of the presence of Christ. A prayer ascribed to St. Teresa of Avila says it well: “Christ has no body . . . no hands, no feet on earth but yours.” How important it is that your actions witness to your relationship with Christ. In this way you make Him known.

   I often quote Pope Paul VI when I speak about witnessing to our faith. No one, to my mind, says it better. People listen “more willingly to witnesses than to teachers,” and if they listen “to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Paul VI, Evangelization in the Modern World, 41). Live as children of the light and let the divine light of Christ in you shine so that others will see Him and believe.

   Share your faith. Even the finest witness to our faith must, at some point, be explained to others. We need to have an answer when people ask us what we believe and why we believe. In the long run there is no better way to hand on the Gospel than to pass on to another person one’s personal experience of the faith. Jesus spoke to the multitudes, but He often spoke one-on-one with people and touched their hearts. Think of Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman and so many others. We need to be willing to share our faith with others so they can meet Christ. Faith, as Pope Francis reminds us, is passed on through an unbroken chain of witnesses (Cf. Lumen Fidei, 38). You are a link in that unbroken chain.

   I want all our students to know, live and share their faith. How vital your role is if this is to be accomplished. This mission is one which I, as your bishop, responsible for the education and formation of those entrusted to me, share with you. We cannot accomplish this mission on our own. 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. It is here that we are transformed and receive the guidance of God’s light which shows us the way and enables us joyfully to advance along the path of life and faith.

   If you have a prayer intention you would like me to consider during the weeks ahead, please mail it to my attention at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.

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