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 basketball. I lost my patience. I took the book from him, ripped it up, and threw it in the trash. The students were shocked, because I had always been pretty patient with them. The boy was shocked too, and sheepishly said to me, “Father, that was a school library book.” Well, I guess I learned my lesson about how a teacher should be patient! I apologized to the boy. Incidentally, that boy stayed in touch with me on and off through the years. He’s now probably about 43 years old, is a good and active Catholic with a wonderful wife and children, and he comes out to see me with other friends each year for a Notre Dame game. We laugh about that incident with the library book.

“Love is patient,” Saint Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians. Your neighbor is your students, as Pope Francis said. The call to love “difficult” students, the ones who try our patience. It’s good to look to the Sacred Heart of Jesus – we can be His difficult students. And yet how patient and merciful He is with us.

It was great to be in Washington and Philadelphia two weeks ago and to attend several of the events with Pope Francis. He is teaching us by word and example to be magnanimous, to have big hearts and greatness of soul. Like all of us, he knows and appreciates that our schools should be academically excellent. He also sees the big picture, the great mission: keeping the sight of God in our window, friendship with God. The Holy Father once spoke to a group of teachers about not reducing everything to the mere transmission of technical knowledge. He encouraged them to build “an educational relationship with each student” and to make each one feel “welcomed and loved for what he or she is, with all their limitations and potential.” He said: “You must not teach just content, but the values and customs of life. A computer can teach content,” he said, “but you must transmit how to love, how to understand which values and customs create harmony in society. For that, we need good teachers.”

I am deeply grateful to all of you for your hard work and for all the good you do in our schools. I know you don’t see your teaching profession as a mere job, but as a vocation. It is a vocation, a calling, to teach and to form disciples of Jesus. I pray with Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, our first reading today, that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” I also pray that you help your students to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ. May the Heart of Jesus overflowing with love for each of us be our model and strength! Let’s keep His Sacred Heart in the window so we stay on course in our holy mission!