Catholic Schools Convocation
Church of the Nativity
August 26, 2021
First, let me say how good it is to see everyone here, in person, this morning. We have been through a long siege and indeed are still going through it. Meanwhile, you, as Catholic educators, have emerged as true heroes. I want to thank you personally for keeping our schools open last year, and for all you have done to ensure that they will open again this year. Not only did you brave the coronavirus, but you also kept our students safe, and remained focused on the mission of Catholic education— and this at a time when tensions run high and people are polarized. No matter what decisions we make, no matter what metrics we follow, we will not be able to please everyone and we will face criticism, as you know so well! I thank you in advance for your patience, for your graciousness, and for your skill and commitment as Catholic educators. May God bless your vitally important ministry now and in the year ahead!
As you know, the first new Catholic school in Baltimore City in 60 years, Mother Mary Lange Catholic School is now open. If you get a chance to see this beautiful new school, please do so. I am very grateful to Jim Sellinger and Dr. Donna Hargens, to Elisha Jordan and her team, and to all those whose skill and generosity made it possible to build and open this school. As the saying goes, ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’ Between your excellent work last year and the opening of the MMLCS, there is new momentum in Catholic education here in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
As we contemplate the work that lies ahead of us, we do well to think about the ultimate purpose for this ministry in which we invest our time, our talent, our energy, and our love. Years ago, a wonderful Milanese priest and religious philosopher, Msgr. Luigi Guissani, came upon an amorous young couple in a parked car. “Pardon me,” he said to them, “I hate to interrupt you but I have a question. What you’re doing right now [he said], what does it have to do with the stars?” To say the least, this priest dressed in his cassock and posing such a strange question astonished the two lovers who were, so to speak, immersed in the moment. But Guissani was not asking the love-struck couple just to think about solar systems.
For him, as philosopher and theologian with a poet’s heart, the stars stood for the infinite, for the unknowable, for a destiny beyond imagining.
We might ask ourselves the same question as we embark on a new academic year. What does the daily routine, the rough and tumble of the classroom, the meetings with parents, coping with the pandemic, the scramble to keep up with technology, and all the things that fill your busy days – what does it all have to do with the stars? What does it have to do with the invitation of friendship that God is extending to our students? With their inner longing for love that is genuine and secure? With their attraction to a knowledge that goes beyond their immediate experience? And what does your daily work of heart and hand have to do with your own longing for the stars, for a love that is infinite, for that world beyond which exceeds our knowledge and experience?
Surely, we want to provide our students with schools that are safe and effective. Surely, we want our students to perform to the best of their ability. We want them to develop the virtues and to become thoughtful and ethical. And yes, we want to help lay a foundation upon which our students will build as they grow to adulthood and take their place in the world as citizens. All that and more – and these are very good things indeed! Yet, in our deep respect for our students, the ministry of Catholic education, is not content to stop there. The word respect comes from the Latin, “re-spicere”, to look again. As Catholic educators, we take a second look at our students, indeed to gaze at them, seeing in even the most challenging of our charges a child of God, a child of the God of infinite truth, love, majesty, and glory. Your ministry is to unlock in your students this desire for the Infinite, for the Mystery, and to help them discover that the love God wants to share with them corresponds perfectly with their inner desire for happiness and fulfillment. Your ministry, my friends, has everything to do with the stars!
As Catholic educators, you are expected to teach the faith to your students – often by your own example but also through explicit classroom instruction. Religion class, like other subjects, has its curriculum and resources and indeed a certain amount of “subject matter” to be covered each semester.
How important it is that our students acquire a sound knowledge of the faith and the intellectual tools, including a vocabulary, with which to express their faith.
That was the strong suit of the iconic Baltimore Catechism, which, as a child I studied in Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in New Albany, Indiana. Back then, I was not exactly sure what religion class had to do with the stars but I was very sure that if I did not master my religious lessons there would be trouble, big trouble, both at school and at home! Yet, two of my teachers, both religious sisters, had a way of helping us glimpse at the heavenly realities that lay behind the catechism questions we memorized. They told stories. They spoke of their own love for the Lord. They evinced amazement! They helped us to encounter the Lord, long before we used language like that. The first time I was truly aware that I had encountered the Lord was at Forty Hours when, like my classmates, I took a turn adoring the Blessed Sacrament. Somehow, the Lord spoke to an unruly 7th grader kneeling there in front of him, and he still speaks to the heart of this aging and unruly disciple of his. It would not have happened without the influence of those two religious sisters. Nor would I be a priest today without their influence. It’s those stars, again!
Food at the Proper Time
In the Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus speaks of a faithful and prudent servant whom the master put in charge of his household to distribute food at the proper time. You, my dear friends and colleagues, are those faithful and prudent servants. And the food to which you lead them is not merely a snack for the preschoolers but indeed a much more profound food, the food that nourishes the heart, the food of Word and Sacrament, the food that puts our students in touch with the divine, the food we call the Bread of Angels or indeed the Bread of Life, the Eucharist. This is the food that unites us to the death and resurrection of our Redeemer but also the food by which we participate, even now in paschal banquet of heaven. This is the food in which we most profoundly encounter the Person of Christ, not only as individuals but as companions, fellow Catholics and pilgrims.
In this Year of the Eucharist, you have an opportunity to reach for the stars, to introduce our young people more profoundly into this sacred mystery, “this sacred banquet in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.” Let us in God’s grace reach for the stars! May God bless you and keep you in his love!