Throughout the span of two days – Thursday, September 7, in Fort Wayne, and Friday, September 8, in Mishawaka – more than 1,000 teachers, faculty and staff of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend were inspired to remain firm in the Church’s mission to educate their students’ minds and nurture their souls. In the opening prayer to kick off the day of formation, the teachers invoked the help of the saints and asked that Christ be an “ever-present teacher in our schools and classrooms.”
Catholic School Mission Day is an annual event bringing together all the schoolteachers in the diocese for a day of prayer and talks about the mission of Catholic education.
Father Agustino Torres, an internationally known speaker, delivered the keynote address in packed gymnasiums at both Bishop Dwenger High School in Fort Wayne and Marian High School in Mishawaka to begin the day of prayer and formation about the mission of Catholic education.
In Mishawaka, Father Torres began by talking about places he had recently visited – including a taqueria in Goshen – that were unashamed to put up pictures of saints or live their Catholic faith in their business. “It’s amazing to see how the Faith is lived every day,” said Father Torres, who joked, “I realized that tacos are going to be the meal at the heavenly banquet.”
More seriously, Father Torres shared a story with the teachers about a family he met in Poland who had been willing to offer catechism classes under great risk during communist rule. While our current battles are different than theirs, Father Torres said, we are still living in difficult times. He told the educators: “Look at the person right next to you and say, ‘I’m a warrior!’… Go into the fray of the confusion of these times and battle for the hearts of these young people.” He added, “And you thought you were just here to teach math!”
Father Torres continued: “Our mission is great, and we are indeed battling for human hearts, for human souls, where there are so many contrarian narratives that go against the mission with which we are entrusted.” Father Torres, one of 50 priests chosen to be a National Eucharistic Preacher during the ongoing National Eucharistic Revival, also emphasized the importance of the Eucharist in the mission of Catholic educators. “The Eucharist and our ministry of teaching is part and parcel, goes together hand in glove; we cannot do it without either one,” he said.
After recalling an experience of saying Mass near the border in northern Mexico, with children huddled around the altar and people weeping as the Eucharist was celebrated, Father Torres said: “This is what the Church has to offer in these times. We can think of arguments to all the contrarian narratives, and there’s a place for that, but bring the people to Jesus. I invite you to recapture wonderment. … Recapture this wonder, this lavishness of faith that we’ve learned from the saints, so that we may evangelize.” He added, “We may not have to host catechism classes at the risk of our lives, but if we do, I’ll see you guys in prison!”
Father Torres’ keynote address on both days was followed by a Mass celebrated by Bishop Rhoades, who focused on the importance of the Blessed Virgin Mary as it pertains to the mission of Catholic schools. The mission day in Mishawaka happened to coincide with the Nativity of Mary, a connection that Bishop Rhoades made in his homily. Bishop Rhoades reflected especially on the title of Mary as “Seat of Wisdom.” He said: “Mary thought with God’s thoughts and willed with God’s will. That’s what true wisdom is.”
Further drawing connections between true wisdom and the mission of Catholic schools, Bishop Rhoades said: “Our schools are to be communities not of worldly wisdom but of divine wisdom – communities of truth and of love. We see education as a unified enterprise, the goal of which is not to communicate knowledge of isolated ‘subjects’ but an integrated curriculum so that the students grasp the relationships between different areas of learning and the relationship of everything to God and His eternal wisdom. We seek to form students who have the wisdom to be able to see the good, the holiness to love what is good, and the eloquence and skill to be able to share the good with others. What an amazing mission that is!”
After awards were presented to teachers who were celebrating milestone anniversaries with the diocese, various breakout sessions focused on other specific ways to carry out this mission. Among more practical talks about caring for mental health and supporting English learners were others focused on Eucharistic adoration or the saints.
Catholic speaker and writer Meg Hunter-Kilmer led one of the breakout sessions in Mishawaka on “Using the Saints to Draw Kids to Jesus.” She recommended telling stories of many kinds of saints and said kids have asked her if she knew about saints who had limb differences or saints who didn’t have fathers in their lives. “The power of these stories is undeniable … just watching the way [the kids] light up when they see there is a place for them in this Church,” Hunter-Kilmer said. She suggested telling children, “The Lord can move in your heart and do incredible things while also using the talents that He gave you.”
Tom Kostielney, a 10-year theology teacher at St. Joseph High School in South Bend, shared with teachers in both Fort Wayne and Mishawaka during his breakout session about how Catholic virtues, ideals, and doctrines can be integrated into any subject and any class. “The Congregation for Catholic Education says the weaving of our reason and our Catholic faith needs to be ‘the heart of the individual subjects,’” Kostielney said. He added: “We want to give them a Catholic education that shows them ‘why.’ Each student will have to critically think about, ‘What does the Catholic worldview actually teach? What do I actually believe?’”
Other breakout sessions in Mishawaka included information about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the mission of Catholic Charities, the importance of Eucharistic adoration, and the Eucharist and Black Catholics.
Lindsay Jeffres, Principal of Christ the King School in South Bend, said this was her fourth year attending Catholic School Mission Day. “I feel like the biggest point of today is to bring the South Bend side of the diocese together, celebrate what we do as educators, invigorate new staff, and revive older staff,” Jeffres said.
Teaching is a difficult calling, and teachers need that revitalization. As Father Torres said, “You teachers are examples of self-sacrifice. Work-life balance is hard for teachers!” Yet in a different part of his keynote, when thinking about the profound humility of the Lord coming down to us in the guise of bread, Father Torres observed, “This is, if you will, the Eucharistic model: hold back nothing of yourself for yourself.”
To end his talk to teachers at Bishop Dwenger, Father Torres told a story from when he was recently ordained. About 15 years ago, he said, he traveled to Europe to participate in a Catholic youth festival with 20,000 youths and young adults. The event was to culminate with a sunrise Mass on the top of a mountain that the pilgrims had hiked up the evening before. Father Torres said he got caught up hearing confessions and, without having slept, arrived for Mass just as the sun was rising. While he and other priests were spreading out to give Communion to the faithful, he was carefully carrying the ciborium with consecrated hosts while trying to navigate his steps down the mountain. “I’m walking down these steps, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, they look kind of slippery. It’d be horrible if I slipped, but that’s not going to happen.’” And then it happened. “I was walking down with Jesus, and I slipped. … The moment turned into slow motion, and I was thinking, ‘What do I do? Do I try to break my fall?’” In that split second, he said, he pictured the hosts flying through the air and rolling around on the ground in the cracks and crevices at the top of the mountain. “Then out of nowhere, all these Italian grandmas just reached through the crowd and grabbed me as I held onto Jesus.”
He implored the teachers: “Hold on to Jesus, and He is going to sustain you. Hold on, because He will lift you up so that you can bring Jesus to others.”
Scott Warden contributed to this report.
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