How Catholicism can transform schools, society through science and racial justice
Like the start of the 2020-21 school year, Catholic Schools Mission Day was unique. Via the Zoom platform on Friday, Sept. 4, educators from across the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend gathered in person at their individual schools, masked and at least 6 feet apart, to join together virtually and reflect and learn about how Catholicism transforms and enriches society through the fields of science and justice, especially racial justice.
The annual event is an opportunity for each teacher and administrator to experience prayer, community, professional and faith development.
“Before COVID-19, we had planned to have a strong focus on faith and science topics this year,” Jonathan Kaltenbach of the Office of Catechesis explained. “Of course, we human beings hold a special place in God’s creation: made to His image and likeness, fallen into sin, but redeemed by Jesus our Savior to worship Him and bring the good news of God’s love, justice and mercy to all people. In the afternoon keynote, we were excited to hear Father Josh’s message of hope to send us forth,” Kaltenbach shared about the day’s program.
Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades began the morning by thanking the teachers, administrators and staffs of the diocese’s Catholic schools for their dedication and diligence during this time of global pandemic, especially as they prepared for and began the start of the school year. He recognized them for being particularly concerned for the poor and the most at-risk students within their communities and supporting them in their needs, and he encouraged all to remember that the Catholic response to COVID-19 begins with and is informed throughout by recognition of the dignity and worth of every human being.
Bishop Rhoades observed that the fundamentals of Catholic social teaching apply just as much to the manner in which the racial tension currently gripping the country is approached as they do to one’s stance before the pandemic. Respecting human dignity, practicing solidarity and transforming care for the weakest and most vulnerable into action must continue to inspire schools’ active response to the pandemic and the social and racial tensions prevalent in the U.S. currently.
Living out Catholic social teaching leads the faithful to be in solidarity with those who are suffering, both locally in smaller school communities, and spiritually on a global scale, the bishop said. He also recommended educators learn and share the examples of so many African American saints in the making.
Welcomed by Carl Loesch, secretary of Catholic education, Dr. Stacy Trasancos gave the keynote address, sharing about her conversion experience. The mother of seven children, with a doctorate in chemistry and master’s in dogmatic theology, she was an atheist who worked as a chemist for DuPont before converting to Catholicism and radically restructuring her life. She left her career to stay home with her kids, becoming a writer and educator. She is now executive director of Bishop Joseph E. Strickland’s St. Philip Institute in Tyler, Texas, teaches online theology courses for Seton Hall University and is a Fellow of the Word on Fire Institute.
With over three decades of scholarly pursuit and parenting experience, she is passionate about leading souls to Christ while “keeping it real.”
Her talk focused on how her love for science was actually a search for truth. Trasancos recalled a time in graduate school when she was trying to replicate photosynthesis and make a second electron jump, after successfully discovering that one jumped. She wasn’t able to figure out the solution. Frustrated and angry, she walked outside and experienced a profound revelation as she gazed upon a gingko balboa tree. There, the reality of God’s own creation broke upon her, changing the way she understood the world. She returned to the lab and slowly began to convert her life to Catholicism.
During the question-and-answer session Trasancos suggested ideas on how to discuss the faith with teenagers and how, as a mother, she greatly desired to be in heaven one day with all of her children. Answering their real and perhaps difficult, questions about faith and life is critical, she maintained, as young people are looking for true witnesses of the Catholic faith.
The teachers gathered into small groups at their various locations for breakout sessions discussing various videos about faith and science topics offered by the Science and Faith Initiative from the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. They had watched a video of their choice on faith and science, and the panelists answered questions from teaching about evolution to finding helpful resources to support their lessons.
Second keynote speaker Father Joshua Johnson spoke after lunch. A priest from the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Father Johnson is pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church in St. Amant, Louisiana, and the director of vocations for the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
He explained that racial injustice has occurred throughout the history of the Catholic Church in America. He shared his own real life experiences as an African American growing up in Louisiana in a biracial family, as well as the witnesses of six African American Catholics who are on the path to sainthood. With historical details as well as reflective theology on Scripture, Father Johnson illuminated both the darkness of the past and offered hope for the present day. He stressed the importance of the perseverance and faithful examples of Venerable Augustus Tolton and Sister Thea Bowman, even in the face of great discrimination and persecution from inside the Church as well as American society.
He offered ideas for schools to welcome students of all racial backgrounds, such as displaying images of saints who have lived holy and heroic lives of all racial backgrounds that already exist in Catholicism and replacing hurtful barriers for people to be drawn to Jesus, such as images of a white St. Michael the Archangel stepping on a Black depiction of Satan. By doing so, students can see images of holiness that look like them and be drawn closer to Jesus.
John Kennedy, principal of Saint Joseph High School, South Bend, said, “Catholic School Mission Day unites our faculty and staff in deepening our faith together. Doing so empowers us to guide our students into a closer relationship with Jesus, and to live our mission to transform students in heart and mind to serve God, the Church, and the world.
The keynote address by Dr. Stacy Trasanco on the connection between faith, science, and nature as a pathway to belief opened our eyes to the wonders of God’s work in this world. Her phrase ‘Science is the handiwork of God’ especially resonated with me. … The afternoon keynote by Father Johnson reminded us that as Catholic schools and educators we must invite all students into discipleship. We are fortunate to have a diverse student body at Saint Joe, and we are inspired by Father Johnson to pursue new ways to celebrate diversity and promote inclusion in our loving community.”
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