By Marsha Jordan
Catholic schools across the nation once again celebrate Catholic Schools Week, from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3 with the theme “Catholic Schools: Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed.” Throughout the week, schools will be involved in events that focus on the value that Catholic education provides to young people and its contributions to our Church, our communities and our nation.
At the end of a recent meeting, a parish priest in attendance eloquently stated the value of Catholic education. Father Jim Shafer, St. Joseph Parish, Garrett, expressed his belief that Catholic education is a treasure to our diocese and was to him, personally, for the way in which it formed him in his faith and led him to his vocation as a priest. His comments came at the end of a conversation about diocesan schools and the exemplary teachers who are their heart and soul. I began remembering lines from the liturgical song “Earthen Vessels:” “We hold a treasure not made of gold, in earthen vessels, wealth untold …” The treasure, of course, is the knowledge of the glory of God. “So,” St. Paul says, “it is with us. In these frail bodies of ours — ‘earthen vessels’ — we have that priceless treasure.”
The “treasure” is also found in the thousands of precious children entrusted to the care of our schools by their parents. The “treasure” is found in the many teachers, administrators and religious who have devoted their teaching vocation to Catholic education. The light of Christ that we have to show the world is carried within our “earthen vessels,” frail and humble, but also made incredibly strong by the gift of faith. Catholic schools are noted for discipline, service and academic excellence but, most important, for the mission of the formation of future saints. Catholic schools strive to form students in those virtues that enable students to recognize that Jesus dwells within them, helping them to live a Christ-centered life, now and into eternity.
Catholic educators are expected to be models for their students by bearing transparent witness to Christ and to the beauty of the Gospel. If boys and girls are to experience the splendor of the Church, the Christian example of teachers and others responsible for their formation is indispensable, and no effort should be spared in guaranteeing the presence of such witness in every Catholic school (“Five Essential Marks of Catholic Schools,” Archbishop J. Michael Miller, 2006).
During Catholic Schools Week, we pay tribute to Catholic educators by recognizing exemplary role models nominated by each school within the diocese. The testimony of others and the words of the teachers themselves attest to the fact that diocesan teachers strive to impart content knowledge but, more important, their personal witness of faith to students. Reflective comments from parents and fellow educators include:
The teacher …
“… is a beautiful example of Christ the Teacher for all her students. She models the love and compassion of Jesus while still calling her students to excel in and out of the classroom.”
“… keeps Christ at the center of her classroom, teaching students with love, kindness and empathy.”
“… leads them in prayer and — by her joyful example — lives the Gospel message of love at all times.”
“… believes in educating students in heart and mind, and wants all students to succeed. He loves his students first, models the faith daily and then teaches U.S. history.”
“… has ignited a passion for the faith in my daughter.”
“… has helped my son develop a deeper understanding of what it meant that Jesus died on the cross for him.”
Teachers stated how important their vocation is to them.
“My faith is important to me. I want the students to feel loved and respected, and that my classroom is a safe haven for them. My prayer each morning is ‘Jesus, let the students see You, not me.’”
“I love teaching and always want my students to succeed, but if I can also be an instrument of faith to my students, then that is my true measure of success.”
“I learned about my faith from teachers who are now my colleagues. What a blessing to be teaching and shaping children just as I was a few short years ago.”
“Over the years, I have learned more about this vocation that God has called and asked of me. This vocation has led me to desire a deeper level in my spiritual life and a strong yearning for students to deepen their Catholic faith in a way that will last a lifetime.”
As illustrated by these comments, it is faith that serves as the sturdy framework around which everything else in integrated within the Catholic school: a challenging curriculum rooted in Gospel values and Catholic teachings, the sacraments, liturgy, prayer, religious instruction and service experiences. When truly effective, the religious education and faith formation touch all members of the school community — students, parents, teachers, administrators and staff — and form them in the way of holiness.
Catholic education has always been at the heart of the Catholic mission. Catholic education and the students who are the product of it have been called the “greatest work of the Church.” They have been entrusted with the fullness of faith and charged with the mission of evangelization. They are to go out into the world and share the gifts they have received — as doctors, lawyers, police officers, firefighters, businessmen and -women, teachers, priests and religious — as Catholic school graduates. Such graduates are a leaven in society, helping the broader community to be the best that it can be (Archbishop J. Michael Miller, 2006).
Papal writings and documents from the Congregation for Catholic Education affirm the priceless treasure of Catholic schools as an indispensable instrument of evangelization. “And because education truly forms human beings, it is especially the duty and responsibility of the Church, who is called to serve mankind from the heart of God and in such a way that no other institution can” (Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis).
The treasure of Catholic education in our diocese had its beginnings in two religious pioneers, Msgr. Julian Benoit and St. Theodora Guerin. It has continued to be nurtured by generations of dedicated men and women — priests, religious and laypersons — who daily witness and proclaim the Gospel to students. Inspired by their example, may we continue to hold and nurture that treasure, “in earthen vessels, wealth untold.”
Marsha Jordan is the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
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