I. Introduction – Greetings and Appreciation
Let me begin by saying how happy I am to be with all of you this morning. It is my first opportunity to join you as the new school year begins and it is also my first opportunity to thank you for all that you do for our young people and their families, for the mission of our schools and of the Church herself, and for the good of society as a whole.
I have always admired Catholic educators, those who lead our schools as presidents, principals, and administrators, those of you who are teachers and teachers’ assistants, and indeed all those who contribute in any way to the success of our schools. There is much for me to learn about the Catholic schools of the Archdiocese but I already sense how dedicated you are to the mission of our schools and how you strive for excellence in our schools. So my first words to you are words of thanks and admiration.
Along with my gratitude, I also want to express my support for our Catholic schools. Again, I have much to learn about our schools but I am already aware of the sacrifices which you and so many parents make to provide an excellent Catholic education for young people in the Archdiocese. You bring to your daily work a commitment to excellence and a sense of mission. You bring to your daily work a desire to help young people grow and develop into the persons God meant them to be for all eternity. Through Catholic schools you help me fulfill my responsibility to teach the faith and to lead the people I’ve been sent to serve to truth, charity, and holiness. We are co-workers in the Lord. And Catholic schools are very much at the heart of the mission of our local Church.
II. The New Evangelization
This year, October 11th, marks the 50th anniversary of opening of the II Vatican Council and the twentieth anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has called us to mark this anniversary by celebrating a Year of Faith as a way of helping spark a new and lasting commitment to the new evangelization. Beginning this October, bishops from all over the world will gather in Rome to spend time reflecting on the new evangelization and the Holy Father himself will fashion from their reflections a message for the whole Church on proclaiming the Gospel anew for the times in which we live.
Evangelization or the new evangelization isn’t merely a program. Bringing the Gospel to the world, to individuals and families, to nations and cultures – this is why Jesus founded the Church, as Pope Paul VI said long ago, this is the Church’s deepest identity. This is why we have dioceses, parishes, schools, and social service agencies; this is why we seek to foster Christian family life and get down on our knees to pray, so that we may be led to Christ and to the Church and in turn bear witness to Christ and his saving love in ways that are true to the Gospel while resonating with those we’re trying to reach.
Let’s think about this in personal terms. How many members of our own families no longer practice the faith? How many do we know who used to take part in the Church’s sacramental life but no longer do so – some because they’ve joined other churches – but some who no longer belong to any church. And how many of the young people we seek to form in the faith never get to Mass on Sunday or experience prayer in their homes, or any of the positive reinforcement so necessary for our teaching to succeed? And as the faith commitment of families and individuals lessens, the culture in which we live is more susceptible to hard and coarse secularism, to the divisiveness and lack of civility that is all around us, to profound selfishness. These are things we all grapple with every day in our personal and professional lives, and the Year of Faith is designed not as a cure-all but as a new beginning.
III. A New Beginning
Well, this is a new beginning for me, and, whenever a diocese receives a new bishop, it is a new beginning for that diocese – and this is no exception. Sometimes people say, “What’s your vision?” “What are your policies and plans?” and, when I’m not around, “What’s the new guy like?”. . . Yet all that can be something of a distraction.
Friends, our one thought, our one prayer, the one desire of our hearts, the one direction toward which we direct or our prayer and work must be toward Jesus Christ and toward the preaching of the Gospel. We must allow the Lord to summon us to more vibrant faith, to joyful fidelity, to a deeper understanding of what we believe and in turn we must ask the Holy Spirit to pour into our hearts God’s love in ever greater measure so that we may be both teachers and witnesses to that love, breaking down barriers to faith by a charity that evangelizes, breaking down mistrust by prayer and virtue, prompting understanding and unity by speaking the truth in love.
As educators, you have a privileged window in the lives of young people. Every one of us can think of teachers who have influenced us, who may even have changed the very course of our lives. You may be teaching math, coaching a game, struggling with smart boards and I-pads, and so many other tasks that cannot possibly be crammed into your ‘job-description’- but as Catholic educators you are always bearing witness to Christ and his love, helping young people to know Christ so that they can know themselves – so that they can truly know their dignity, their worth, their mission in life.
IV. Help from an Unlikely Quarter
You may have noticed that we have gathered on the feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian abbot who hails to from France in the first half of the 12th century. The readings and the Mass prayers are all taken from the memorial of St. Bernard who was canonized in 1174 and named a Doctor of the Church in 1830.
What might he say to us as 21st century Catholic educators facing cultural challenges which were unimaginable in the 12th century?
When we look at St. Bernard’s life, we learn that he faced great problems, maybe even greater problems than the ones with which we grapple; to name a few: the reform of monastic life in a time when it had become quite decadent; his own failing health; schism in the Church when two rival popes were elected . . . St. Bernard did not seek to insert himself in these and other weighty matters but rather he was sought out because he was a man of wisdom and charity, because his life and thought were shaped and suffused by Scripture, because his eloquent preaching was backed up by genuine holiness of life: all this made Bernard a catalyst in restoring unity to the Church and in restoring the Church’s mission new vibrancy.
As we seek in our day as Catholic educators to be agents of the new evangelization, let us ask St. Bernard to pray with us and for us, that we too might open our hearts afresh to the living Word of God, that we too might grow in that wisdom & charity which makes the Gospel convincing, that we too might bear eloquent witness to Christ by our growth in holiness, such that we might help the young people we serve truly to know Christ who is the answer to the question that is every human life.
May God bless you and your students as this new academic year unfolds.