Catholic School Mission Days

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October 8 and 9, 2015

You may have seen the movie Apollo 13, produced several years ago. There is a scene in the movie in which astronaut Jim Lovell had to steer the spacecraft manually, because there wasn’t enough power to operate the guidance system and the spacecraft had drifted off course. In order to get it back on its course, he had to keep the sight of the earth in the craft’s small window while he fired the engines. He did so successfully.

I propose this scene as an image for you as teachers and administrators in our Catholic schools, because this is how we can be successful in our mission: we need to keep God in the window. He is the point of the journey of Catholic education. And we need to keep the sight of God in our window if we want to stay on course. (taken from Foreword of A Reason Open to God, by John Garvey).

Pope Benedict XVI once said to students: In your Catholic schools, there is always a bigger picture over and above the individual subjects you study, the different skills you learn. All the work you do is placed in the context of growing in friendship with God, and all that flows from that friendship. So you learn not just to be good students, but good citizens, good people. I think this statement gets to the heart of the mission of our Catholic schools. That’s the bigger picture: cultivating friendship with God. We aim to provide a well-rounded education for the whole person. That education is grounded in the truth that human beings can only find the meaning of their existence in reference to God and His love, and that it is friendship with God that enables us to live a fulfilling life, to live in hope and joy, to overcome sin and evil, and ultimately, to live forever in heaven. We immerse our students in the world of knowledge. We teach them many different subjects. But we must always keep before us the big picture, our ultimate mission. When we do, we are not only imparting knowledge to our students, we are also helping to build their character and preparing them to serve the common good of society.

You may recall that last year at Mass on Catholic School Mission Day, I spoke about cultivating the virtue of magnanimity, having a big heart, a greatness of soul. That theme continues today. I’m celebrating the Votive Mass of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Where do we find greater magnanimity than in the Heart of Jesus, a heart that was pierced, revealing the breadth and length, the height and depth, of God’s love? Catholic education is an education in love, an education of the heart as well as of the mind and body. It is an education in God’s love revealed in the heart of His Son.

Our schools must be places where students learn to love God and neighbor. Of course, this must begin with our own witness of obedience to these two greatest commandments. In an address to teachers, Pope Francis reflected on this. He asked who is a teacher’s neighbor? His answer: the students! The Holy Father said the following: “The duty of a good teacher – all the more for a Christian teacher – is to love his or her more difficult, weaker, more disadvantaged students with greater intensity. Jesus would say, if you love only those who study, who are well educated, what merit have you? Any teacher can do well with such students. I ask you to love ‘difficult’ students more… and there are some who really try our patience, but we have to love them more… those who do not want to study, those who find themselves in difficult conditions, the disabled and foreigners, who today pose a great challenge for schools.”

Reading that quote from Pope Francis reminded me of an experience I had when I was first ordained. I was assigned to teach religion to the sixth grade in the parish school. It was the most unruly class in the school. The poor teacher, a good man, was unable to keep order in the class. There really wasn’t any discipline. It was really difficult. I used to have to spend the first ten minutes just getting the kids to calm down. One boy was particularly difficult, disobedient, and disrespectful. One day, I reached the end of my ropes. I had instructed the students to put everything away, to give me their undivided attention, so I could teach them the lesson for that day. This particular boy wouldn’t listen – he continued to read a book he had about ba