A new school year is upon us! On September 2, I celebrated Mass at Holy Cross Church in DeWitt for Catholic school administrators, faculty and staff to mark the beginning of the new school year. Our Catholic schools have the indispensable mission to form the minds and hearts of children and young people to love Christ and His Church. Key to this formation is the living witness offered by those who minister in our schools. The homily I preached on that occasion is printed below.
During his recent visit to South Korea, Pope Francis spoke about Catholic education: “I would ask you to be concerned in a special way for the education of children, supporting the indispensable mission not only of the universities, important as they are, but also Catholic schools at every level, beginning with elementary schools, where young minds and hearts are shaped in love for the Lord and his Church, in the good, the true and the beautiful and where children learn to be good Christians and upright citizens” (Address to Bishops of South Korea, August 14, 2014).
Our Catholic schools offer quality academic programs in orderly, secure environments that support learning. But quality academic programs and secure, orderly environments conducive to learning do not define the unique character of our schools. They do not define what Pope Francis calls the “indispensable mission” of our schools. Why does the Church support Catholic schools? What does the Catholic school offer that is unique and proper to its mission?
The answer to that question resides in “who” not “what” Catholic schools offer. The most important aspect of a Catholic school is its foundation in Christ. Our schools are first and foremost places where students meet Christ. From Him flows the unique marks of a Catholic school, namely, a supernatural vision of life which views eternal life as our final destiny, an awareness of the dignity of every human person made in the image and likeness of God, the experience of a faith community, a curriculum which acknowledges the need for faith to dialogue with the culture of our time and the personal witness of teachers and administrators.
What a noble vocation you have — to shape the minds and hearts of our children and young people in love for Christ and His Church. The Church’s teaching mission includes inviting young people to a relationship with Jesus Christ or deepening an existing relationship with Jesus, inserting them into the life of the Church and assisting them to see and understand the role of faith in their daily life and in the larger society.
I ask you to remember how important your example, your witness is for your students. In the course of the year, you will speak many words, offering instruction and guidance, but remember also how powerful your actions will be, how indispensable they are especially when you are forming young minds and hearts in the way of the Gospel, encouraging them to love Christ and to follow Him.
Do you recall a particular teacher or, hopefully, more than one who made an impact on your life? I do and so does Pope Francis. Speaking to students recently he said, “Why do I love school? I will try to tell you. I have an image in mind. I heard that we do not grow up alone, and that there is always a gaze that helps us to grow. I have a mental picture of my first teacher when I was six in first grade. I have never forgotten her. She made me love school. And then I went to see her throughout her life, until she passed away at the age of 98. I love school, because that woman taught me to love it. This is the reason why I love school” (Address of Pope Francis to Students and Teachers from Schools across Italy, May 10, 2014).
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)
“To educate is an act of love, it is to give life. And love is demanding” (Pope Francis, Address to Congregation of Education, February 13, 2014). We cannot fulfill this task alone. We need the support and example of one another. Most especially we need God’s help. We need the assistance of His grace. So we begin each school year with the celebration of the Eucharist. Here, nourished by Word and Sacrament we find the grace to fulfill our vocation as Catholic school educators.
Today we are celebrating a Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit. How appropriate it is that we use this Mass. The Holy Spirit, the love between the Father and the Son, the Spirit of Love, will aid and support our efforts to educate . . . to engage in this act of love, a love which is demanding.
The readings chosen for today referred to the Spirit of the Lord. In our first reading, we heard about the “new spirit” within the “new heart” that will enable the people to live as God’s special possession. In the second reading, St. Paul assures us that we have received the Spirit of God which gives us the “mind of Christ.” In the Gospel, Jesus tells us He is the one upon whom the Spirit rests, the bearer of good news who proclaims liberty, restores sight and frees the oppressed. The Church continues Jesus’ mission to announce the good news.
All of us entrusted with the ministry of education need the Spirit deep within us, to enlighten our minds and hearts, support our efforts and guide our words and deeds so that those entrusted to our care will acquire the human knowledge and skills necessary for life and encounter the living God in Christ, the Word made flesh. The Holy Spirit keeps the “mind of Christ” alive and vibrant in us so that we can proclaim the good news with enthusiasm and joy.
Be assured of my profound gratitude for all that you do to preserve and strengthen our Catholic schools and most especially for all that you are . . . authentic witnesses to Christ. May you contribute to your students’ formation and education, “making them what their destiny implies, those who talk consciously with God, people who are there for God to love” (The Catholic School, The Sacred Congregation of Education 1977).
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.