A new school year is upon us! On August 31, school administrators, faculty and staff gathered for Mass at Holy Cross Church in DeWitt to mark the beginning of the school year. This annual gathering gives me the opportunity to comment on the particular character of a Catholic school and the indispensable role that administrators, faculty, and staff play as they provide credible, living witness to Christ and His message. The homily I preached on that occasion is printed below.

January 1 is not the only day on which we acknowledge a new beginning. For school administrators, faculty, and staff the opening day of school marks a new beginning as significant as the start of a new calendar year. For those of us committed to Catholic schools we celebrate this beginning in a unique manner. We gather at the Eucharist to praise and thank God and to ask for His guidance and support for the school year.

“Stay awake! You cannot know the day your Lord is coming” (Mt 24:42). We just heard these words in the Gospel reading. My first thought was that this was a rather sober message to convey at the beginning of the school year. However, as I read the entire passage I found it very appropriate to your role in our Catholic schools.

You are called to keep a “watchful eye” on those entrusted to your care. You are the “faithful, far-sighted servants” who are in charge of the “household,” specifically the school faith community in which you serve. Quoting from the first reading we heard today you are expected to “stand firm in the Lord” (1Thes 3:8).

Our Catholic schools are vital to the life of the Church. While this has always been the case, recent events remind me once again of the important role they hold in the transmission of our faith and in building societies where the dignity of the human person is recognized and protected.

The local and national news this summer has been filled with violence — in our local area, nationally, and worldwide. Violence seems to be a way of life marked by uncontrolled anger, racial tensions, and lack of civility in word and deed. In the midst of this reality, what is the message of a Catholic school? As “masters of the household and far-sighted servants,” what do you offer your students? You are the bearers of the message!

Christ is the foundation of the education we offer in our schools. His revelation gives new meaning to life and helps our students to direct their thoughts, actions, and will according to the Gospel. Our Catholic schools are committed to the development of the whole person “after the mind of Christ.” Herein lies their specific character: to cultivate human values in accordance with the Gospel, the words and deeds of Jesus. The specific character of our schools is a person, not a theory or lofty pedagogical methods. The mission of our Catholic schools is to teach students to know Jesus, to love Jesus, to follow Him, and to serve Him. Their aim is to form students in virtues that will enable them to live a new life in Christ and help them to take part in building up the Church and society.

During his pastoral visit to the United States in 2008, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI very simply but clearly noted the unique character of Catholic schools. “First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth. This relationship elicits a desire to grow in the knowledge and understanding of Christ and his teaching. In this way those who meet him are drawn by the very power of the Gospel to lead a new life characterized by all that is beautiful, good and true . . .” (Address to Educators at Catholic University of America, April 17, 2008).

Pope Francis asks us “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).

Do we want our students to have successful careers? Should our schools have outstanding academic programs with incredible art, music and athletic opportunities? Certainly. These elements, however, do not define the distinctive mission of our Catholic schools. Christ is the difference.

I ask you to remember how important your example 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.

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).   

Quoting Pope Francis, “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.

In my opening remarks, I noted the “bad news” that we often read about or see on social media and the evening news. Recently, the devastating hurricane and flood in Houston have also revealed “good news” — the kindness, compassion and active concern of first responders, volunteers and neighbors. In times of distress and suffering, color and race, social standing and caustic political conversations are put aside.

It would be great if this care, respect, and concern for others would endure in the days and months after Harvey. Resolute in your commitment to the Gospel and assisted by God’s grace you can touch the hearts and mind of your students to the dignity of human life and their eternal destiny . . .  a destiny linked to the love and care of their brothers and sisters.  Society will be transformed when individuals are transformed. Your lofty vocation calls you to be agents of this transformation.

Today’s Gospel reminds us that someday the master will come. Until then may we be faithful to our responsibility to watch over those entrusted to our care and  pass on the treasure of our Catholic faith and the teachings of the Church by our words and example.

Be assured of my prayers for you. “May the Lord increase you and make you overflow with love for one another and for all . . .  . May he strengthen your hearts making them blameless and holy before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus” (1Thess 3: 12-13).

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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