Homily preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D. on the Vocation of the Catholic School Teacher for the Faculty Day of Prayer of St. Theresa School in Coral Gables, Florida, on 19 August 2016.
Today’s First Reading would seem to be ideally chosen for Catholic school teachers. Ezekiel is confronted with a vision of a field of dry, dead bones and commanded to prophesy over them, so as to bring them back to life. Isn’t that the situation in which we find ourselves in the secularized West? Unfortunately, like the Chosen People of old, most of our contemporaries don’t realize that they are dead and that the culture is moribund. It is our task to demonstrate to them just how lifeless the whole culture is. Were it otherwise, how would one explain the vast array of children with learning disabilities of every kind; the couches of psychiatrists constantly filled; the suicide rate (especially among the young) the highest in our history? Too often, we Catholic educators have been intimidated into silence in the face of what is in reality an “anti-culture,” lest we appear “out of it” or “uncool.”
Back in the silly – and stupid — sixties, we were told that if we could shake off the shackles of religion and morality, we would experience true and complete happiness. Religion, we heard, was an albatross, an inhibition, an obstacle to human fulfillment. Well, the shackles were certainly removed, and the result has been a disaster. With the depressing signs all around us, we are in an ideal position to be educators, in the root Latin sense of the word, “educere,” to lead out – leading our students out of the misery and shackles of a godless modernity. We must convince them – being convinced first of all ourselves – of the truth put forth so powerfully by Pope Benedict XVI in his inaugural homily, which in turn was harking back to the inaugural homily of Pope John Paul II:
At this point, my mind goes back to Oct. 22, 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in Saint Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!” The Pope was addressing the mighty, the powerful of this world, who feared that Christ might take away something of their power if they were to let him in, if they were to allow the faith to be free. Yes, he would certainly have taken something away from them: the dominion of corruption, the manipulation of law and the freedom to do as they pleased. But he would not have taken away anything that pertains to human freedom or dignity, or to the building of a just society.
The Pope was also speaking to everyone, especially the young. Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.
That, my friends and colleagues, is our holy vocation, our noble calling – to teach those committed to our care that in following Christ and His Church, we lose nothing that is “free, beautiful and great” – and gain much more besides. However, every Catholic educator must understand his or her calling and glory in it. Just what kind of understanding will enable you to be effective proclaimers of Gospel living and Catholic truth?
First of all, before becoming a teacher, one must be a student, a disciple. An old Latin adage instructs us: “Nemo dat quod non habet” (No one can give what he doesn’t have). One must enroll oneself in the School of Jesus and, having gone through a thorough education in the faith and a serious formation in virtuous living, only then will one be able to teach others. Here’s what the Congregation for Catholic Education said in 1977:
By their witness and their behaviour teachers are of the first importance to impart a distinctive character to Catholic schools. It is, therefore, indispensable to ensure their continuing formation through some form of suitable pastoral provision. This must aim to animate them as witnesses of Christ in the classroom and tackle the problems of their particular apostolate, especially regarding a Christian vision of the world and of education, problems also connected with the art of teaching in accordance with the principles of the Gospel. (“The Catholic School,” n. 78)
Only once we are evangelized can we become evangelists. Only once we become disciples can we be credible teachers. In this regard, it is worth recalling the insightful observation of Pope Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi, his 1975 apostolic exhortation: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (n. 41). Or, as the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council before him put it in their Decree on Christian education, Gravissimum Educationis:
. . . let teachers recognize that the Catholic school depends upon them almost entirely for the accomplishment of its goals and programs. They should therefore be very carefully prepared so that both in secular and religious knowledge they are equipped with suitable qualifications and also with a pedagogical skill that is in keeping with the findings of the contemporary world. Intimately linked in charity to one another and to their students and endowed with an apostolic spirit, may teachers by their life as much as by their instruction bear witness to Christ, the unique Teacher. Let them work as partners with parents and together with them in every phase of education. . . . Let them do all they can to stimulate their students to act for themselves and even after graduation to continue to assist them with advice, friendship and by establishing special associations imbued with the true spirit of the Church. The work of these teachers, this sacred synod declares, is in the real sense of the word an apostolate most suited to and necessary for our times and at once a true service offered to society. (n. 8)
St. John Paul II, the great apostle of Catholic education – who often referred to Catholic schools as the very “heart of the Church” – in a 1996 discourse to the International Office of Catholic Education likewise addressed our topic in great detail:
It is of supreme importance that these educators, who have come of their own accord to offer their services in a Catholic institution or have been recruited by the administration of the school, have a precise vision of a Christian education based on the Gospel message. It is a sacred duty for all to bear witness individually and, at the same time communally, to their faith. . . . Each one, in the discipline he teaches, will know how to find the opportune circumstance to have the youth discover that science and faith are two different yet complementary readings of the universe and of history. . . . Catholic education must be outstanding for the professional competence of its teachers, the witness of their strong faith and the atmosphere of respect, mutual assistance and Gospel joy which permeate the entire institution.
Notice how the sainted Pope weaves together several threads: personal commitment to Christ, professional competence, permeation of the curriculum with religious and moral values (in other words, religion isn’t only taught in a half-hour religion class) – all leading to an atmosphere of genuine Christian life.
Pope Francis the Jesuit, himself a former high school teacher of Latin and chemistry, in a 2014 address to the Congregation of Catholic Education spoke at length about the importance of a proper preparation of “formators” in our Catholic schools. After stating the obvious need for such teachers to be academically qualified, he also calls for them to be “coherent witnesses.” And how is that achieved? He tells us:
For this, an educator is himself in need of permanent formation. It is necessary to invest so that teachers and supervisors may maintain a high level of professionalism and also maintain their faith and the strength of their spiritual impetus. And in this permanent formation too I would suggest a need for retreats and spiritual exercises for educators. It is a beautiful thing to offer courses on the subject, but it is also necessary to offer spiritual exercises and retreats focused on prayer! For consistency requires effort but most of all it is a gift and a grace. We must ask for it!
Isn’t that what we are doing today?
The Pope mentions prayer as an essential ingredient of the life of a Catholic educator. This is a strong echo of the admonition of the Venerable Mother Luisita, foundress of the Carmelite Sisters of Alhambra, who asserted – without fear of contradiction: “Do not simply be good teachers. Be souls of prayer or you will have nothing to offer the children.”
In a conversation with students of Jesuit schools in June of 2013, Pope Francis zeroed in on the essential role of teachers, all the while encouraging them not to lose hope in the face of what Pope Benedict termed “an educational emergency,” that is, a worldwide pedagogical meltdown. Francis said:
Do not be disheartened in the face of the difficulties that the educational challenge presents! Educating is not a profession but an attitude, a way of being; in order to educate it is necessary to step out of ourselves and be among young people, to accompany them in the stages of their growth and to set ourselves beside them.
Give them hope and optimism for their journey in the world. Teach them to see the beauty and goodness of creation and of man who always retains the Creator’s hallmark. But above all with your life be witnesses of what you communicate. Educators. . . pass on knowledge and values with their words; but their words will have an incisive effect on children and young people if they are accompanied by their witness, their consistent way of life. Without consistency it is impossible to educate! . . .
Thus collaboration in a spirit of unity and community among the various educators is essential and must be fostered and encouraged. School can and must be a catalyst, it must be a place of encounter and convergence of the entire educating community, with the sole objective of training and helping to develop mature people who are simple, competent and honest, who know how to love with fidelity, who can live life as a response to God’s call, and their future profession as a service to society.
I trust you did not miss his emphasis yet again on the need for a consistent witness of life on the part of Catholic school teachers. But he also stresses that this is a communal enterprise; to his way of thinking (and the Church’s), this involves parents as well and especially. And don’t miss his emphasis on providing young people with a perspective of hopefulness – in a world so driven to hopelessness and despair.
In another meeting with teachers, Francis observed that teachers are not generally well paid. While all of us would like to see that situation improved, let me also make a few comments in that regard. When I was a high school administrator, during Catholic Schools Week, we always had a teacher appreciation day, in the lead-up to which I distributed a faculty list to the students, identifying the teacher’s field, the salary that person received from us, and what that teacher would earn in the government school down the block. Some of the teachers did not like the practice and thought it potentially demeaning. I disagreed. Why? Because, invariably, students would go up to a teacher and say, “Mrs. Jones, you mean to tell me that you could make $10,000 a year more by just walking down the road? Why do you stay here?” Those questions became “teachable moments,” allowing the teacher to explain that he or she was in a Catholic school, not to make money, but to share a Christian vision of life, thus inviting the whole school community to life on high with Christ for all eternity. In our materialistic culture, that kind of witness is invaluable. At a practical level, I should also mention that there are trade-offs in life: If you enter a Catholic school at eight in the morning with four limbs, your dignity and a lesson plan, I can pretty well guarantee that you will leave at three with four limbs, your dignity and a completed lesson – plus so much more.
You will recall that in one Pope Francis’ talks, he urged teachers not to give in to discouragement. Permit me to piggy-back on that idea in three ways.
First, at times we hear people say that Johnny went to twelve years of Catholic school but hasn’t darkened the door of a church since graduation. While this is surely regrettable, it is also evidence that what we do in our schools is catechesis and evangelization, not brain-washing. If every Catholic school graduate emerged a devout, practicing Catholic, we might have cause to wonder. Not that we wouldn’t want that to be the case – we do – but grace is offered and can be refused. As St. John Paul was fond of saying, the faith is proposed, not imposed.
Second, we have something to learn from the parable of the sower, wherein we hear of the various types of soil in which the seed of the Word of God is sown. While we teachers are used to assigning a grade of 65 or 70 as passing, what does Jesus say about a passing grade for a sower of the seed, that is, a Catholic educator? The Master Teacher says a teacher who succeeds 25% of the time is indeed a success. Why? Because, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, “grace builds on nature.” We can only do so much with what we are presented. Or, as Cardinal Dolan of New York puts in a one of his homey and foody images, “You can only make gnocchi with the dough you’re given.” Which leads to my last point.
Children are coming to us today all too often from homes where the parents don’t know how to parent because they were never properly parented. Therefore, teachers today – more than ever before – truly stand in loco parentis (in the place of parents). We need to, can, and must catechize and evangelize two generations at once – and not infrequently three. That ought not to be viewed as a burden but as an exhilarating opportunity.
St. Edith Stein (whose liturgical memorial we celebrated last week) was a consummate educator, a fact not often adverted to. The Carmelite martyr of Auschwitz maintained that it is the teacher’s task to help students “develop their gifts and talents and find their own place in the community of the classroom where they can contribute to this community.” She goes on: ”Teachers who practice their vocation in the above manner pave the way for the recovery of family and nation.” But then, very realistically, she adds: “Should it be too late for that, then in any case, [the teacher] works for the Communion of Saints.”
When all is said and done, that’s what it’s really all about – working for the Communion of Saints. That is, saving ourselves through our noble vocation as teachers and helping to save as many of our students and their families as we can. In one of the more revealing dialogues in the award-winning film, A Man for All Seasons, St. Thomas More engages the weasel Richard Rich in a conversation about his future. Rich says that he has thought about becoming a teacher but has dismissed it in the end. “Why?’ asks More. “Who would know?” responds the egoistic Rich. More, who had a way of getting to the heart of the matter, replies: “You would know; your students would know; God would know. Not a bad audience!” Indeed, not a bad audience.
Pope Benedict, in speaking to a group of American bishops on 5 May 2012 on the Catholic schools of our nation, concluded thus: “I wish to express once more my gratitude, and that of the whole Church, for the generous commitment, often accompanied by personal sacrifice, shown by so many teachers and administrators who work in the vast network of Catholic schools in your country.” It is my privilege to echo those sentiments of the Holy Father today.
I pray that you take to heart the divine challenge given to Ezekiel and see in this new academic year the exciting challenge to bring to life dry bones which will rise up to form an army of Christian soldiers who will be a force for truth and goodness and renewal in the Church and in society-at-large. We have the assurance of God Himself that this can happen: “I have promised, and I will do it, says the Lord.”
I always say that a teacher, a parent or a priest must develop the mentality of the long-distance runner. What do I mean? It is rare to see immediate results for our efforts. Sometimes the affirmation comes years later; sometimes, not at all. And so, I want to leave you with a meditation penned by the great John Henry Cardinal Newman – a pre-eminent promoter of Catholic education in nineteenth-century England and an inspiration for our schools to this day. His reflection is not valuable solely for us teachers, but something worthwhile to share with our students as well. Blessed John Henry writes:
God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments.
Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.
Yes, the Almighty knows what He is about, and He has given you the call to teach His little ones about Him. What a dignity! What a grace! What a responsibility! With St. Paul, I pray: “May the God who has begun this good work in you bring it to completion.”