Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades delivered this talk at the Light of Learning Award luncheons in Fort Wayne and South Bend during Catholic Schools Week.
Every year I look forward to this gathering in which we celebrate our Catholic Schools and honor our great teachers. I wish to congratulate and thank all our Light of Learning Award recipients for your service to the Church, to our schools, and to our children. I wish also to thank all of you present here today for your strong and steadfast support of Catholic education. I thank Quality Dining for generously hosting this luncheon and the awards and also Redeemer Radio for broadcasting this event.
These past couple of months I have studied and reflected prayerfully on two documents of our Holy Father, Pope Francis: his encyclical The Light of Faith and his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel. I highly recommend these documents for your own spiritual reading. I think there are wonderful insights in these works that are connected to the mission of our Catholic schools. Pope Francis writes about faith as a light that illumines our journey through life. He says that it is a light “capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence” (LF 4). It is a supernatural gift that we receive from God. The Pope writes: “In God’s gift of faith… we realize that a great love has been offered us, a good word has been spoken to us, and that when we welcome that word, Jesus Christ the Word made flesh, the Holy Spirit transforms us, lights up our way to the future and enables us joyfully to advance along that way on wings of hope. Thus wonderfully interwoven, faith, hope and charity are the driving force of the Christian life as it advances toward full communion with God” (LF 7).
We have Catholic schools and invest so much in our schools because they are means not only to enlighten our children and young people with knowledge of math, science, social studies, and other subjects. Yes, we work hard to provide an excellent education in all these areas. That is part of the important academic mission of our schools. But our schools exist for the primary purpose of passing on the faith: yes, knowledge of the doctrines of the Catholic faith, but also something deeper, that which Pope Francis is talking about.
Faith is an assent to revealed truths, but it is also an encounter with God and His love. It is welcoming the saving Word that He has spoken to us, the Word made flesh, Jesus His Son and our Savior. Faith involves transformation by the Holy Spirit. It indeed enlightens our existence and gives joy and meaning to our lives. It engenders hope and inspires charity. These are all aspects of the mission of our Catholic schools: teaching our young people the truths of the faith (their intellectual formation), and also forming them as disciples of Jesus, touched by His love, and transformed by His grace. This all happens not just in a disciplined classroom. It happens in the community of the school, through the love and witness of our teachers, principals, and staffs. It happens through the experience of prayer and the liturgy that are essential parts of the life of our school communities. It happens through the exercise of charity, the service that our young people are called to do in living out the faith in daily life.
Pope Francis is calling all of us to embrace the faith anew. He is following upon the call of Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict to the new evangelization. Pope Francis wrote: “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness” (JG 1). I see this joy of the Gospel when I visit our Catholic schools. Every Catholic school should exude this joy, the joy of faith, the joy of knowing God’s love. Our schools have the mission to be schools of the Gospel of joy, schools of the Gospel of life, schools of the Gospel of peace, schools of the Gospel of love. It is one indivisible Gospel — the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When they are, they are worth every sacrifice we make for Catholic education.
Pope Francis is challenging us and the Church in many ways. It is good to be challenged. Just as we are challenged in our own personal lives of faith, so should our parish and school communities be challenged. The Holy Father is challenging us to say no to the idolatry of money, no to secularism and relativism, no to selfishness and spiritual sloth, no to a sterile pessimism, no to spiritual worldliness, and no to fighting among ourselves. But these many “no’s” are really the call to a great “yes.” It is the yes to Christ and to the Gospel. He writes: “Challenges exist to be overcome! Let us be realists, but without losing our joy, our boldness and our hope-filled commitment. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of missionary vigor!” (JG 109).
The Holy Father is calling us not only to be disciples of Jesus, but to be “missionary disciples.” Our Catholic schools are forming and educating disciples of Jesus. But we must also be forming our young people to be missionary disciples. What does this mean? It means that we are doing all we can to form them to evangelize others, to be active members of the Church after they graduate, and discern their vocations according to God’s plan for their lives.
Though we face many problems in our society and culture today, we must teach our young people that “challenges exist to be overcome,” as the Holy Father reminds us. But we are not only to teach this to our young people. We need to know this in our own hearts. We need to experience the burning fire of the Holy Spirit in our own hearts — all of us, bishop, priests, deacons, religious, parents, teachers, and all the laity! Through prayer, we can rediscover each day the love of Christ in our lives.
Pope Francis says that “the primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of Him” (JG 264). I would add that the primary reason for our Catholic schools is also this love of Jesus which we have received, the love that we believe in with all our hearts. We need to ask the Lord to touch our hearts with this love which results in an intense desire to share this love with others. Pope Francis says: “We need to implore His grace daily, asking Him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence” (JG 264). When we do, when we encounter the Lord and his love, our friendship with Him gives us the enthusiasm for our mission and the mission of our Catholic schools. The Church needs this new missionary fervor. And we need this fervor in our schools.
We don’t walk along the journey of faith alone and we don’t serve and support our schools alone. We do so together, with one another, as brothers and sisters in Christ. And we also do so with a woman of great faith always at our side. Pope Francis wrote that the Blessed Virgin Mary “is the missionary who draws near to us and accompanies us throughout life, opening our hearts to faith by her maternal love. As a true mother, she walks at our side, she shares our struggles and she constantly surrounds us with God’s love” (JG 286). Mary Immaculate is the patron of our diocese. May she intercede for us and for all our Catholic school communities that they may truly be schools of the Gospel, vibrant in faith, hope, and charity! May God bless you!
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