As we approach the last week of January, the celebration of Catholic Schools Week begins. Sponsored by the National Catholic Education Association, Catholic Schools Week gives us an annual opportunity to acknowledge the vital purpose of our Catholic schools and celebrate their accomplishments. The theme for the week, Catholic Schools: Learn, Serve, Lead, Succeed, encompasses the core product and values that are found in our Catholic schools.
The first ideas that occurred to me as I began to collect my thoughts about Catholic schools were twofold. First, I recalled my days in Catholic schools. Second, I realized how grateful I am for those years.
I am a Catholic school graduate, beginning my time in Catholic schools in first grade and continuing through high school, college, and graduate studies. To this day, I can recall the sisters who taught me in elementary school; the priests who instructed me in the Diocesan Preparatory Seminary, St. John Vianney Seminary in East Aurora; and the professors at Catholic University of America. At every level, priests and sisters were joined by dedicated laymen and women, committed to Catholic education. As I recalled those years, the people I encountered, the lessons I learned, and the challenges I faced, I realized once again how blessed I was to receive a Catholic education. I am most grateful for those years and the people I met along the way.
After this brief trip down memory lane, I considered the unique character of Catholic schools. What makes them different? Allow me to mention two distinctive characteristics that I consider essential to the nature of a Catholic school.
One of my favorite descriptions of a Catholic school is a place “where students encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth” (Benedict XVI, Address at Catholic University of America, April 18, 2008). Catholic schools exist to pass on our faith. The primary object of our faith is a personal relationship with Christ. Instruction in our faith, opportunities for prayer and reflection, the integration of faith into all subject areas, the lived faith of school personnel, and the celebration of the sacraments especially the Eucharist — elements of a Catholic school education — provide students with the opportunity to meet Christ and grow in their relationship with Him.
Growing in our relationship with Christ leads to the recognition of His presence in others. Pope Francis describes a Catholic school as a place of encounter with others. A school “is a meeting place along the way. We meet our peers; we meet teachers; we meet the staff. Parents meet the teachers; the principals meet the families, etc. It is a place of encounter. And we today need this culture of encounter in order to get to know one another, to love one another, to journey together” (Address to Italian Students and Teachers, September 10, 2014).
The compass of a Catholic school is always set toward Christ. He is “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). He is the one who satisfies the deepest desires of our hearts. He is the one who comes to meet us and accompanies us on the journey of faith and life. Every Catholic school should be a place of encounter — an encounter with Christ and an encounter with others. When this happens, the school is a true community of faith where the love of God and others is evident.
The second distinctive element of a Catholic school is its very basic, fundamental, and clear understanding of the human person, created in God’s image and likeness. Students learn they have been created “to know, love and serve God in this life and to be happy with Him forever in eternity.” A Catholic school provides the program and environment in which students are formed as good citizens of this world, “loving God and neighbor and enriching society with the leaven of the gospel, and who will also be citizens of the world to come, thus fulfilling their destiny to become saints” (Teaching on Catholic Schools, Archbishop Miller).
So often today education is viewed solely as a means to acquire information that will improve the chances of worldly success and a more comfortable standard of living. Catholic schools keep in mind the supernatural and transcendent vision of the human person. The destiny of the human person is communion with God in this life and in the joy and beauty of eternal life. The education of the whole person, a fundamental component of a Catholic school, puts the eternal destiny of the human person front and center.
God bless our Catholic schools! They have a distinctive focus. They are places of encounter with Christ and others and they teach the inherent dignity of the human person destined for eternal life.
In closing, let me express my appreciation to the administrators, teachers, and staff who work in our Catholic schools. They are the living witnesses who by their instruction, and most especially their example, create the school communities that pass on our faith. I am most grateful for their commitment to our schools and their living witness to our 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.