Bishop tells Catholic educators: 'Lead our students to Christ'
Michael C. Barber, SJ
Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco sadly passed away last month. When I was named a bishop, I asked him for his advice, since he had been named a bishop at a young age, 38, and it was he who ordained me a priest. He said the best advice he ever received was from a nun who had founded a number of Catholic schools and hospitals, and was renowned for her administrative ability. Sister told the young bishop: "If you want to be a good leader you need to do three things: Organize. Deputize. And Recognize."
I would like to recognize our new superintendent of Catholic schools, Dr. Kathleen Radecke, and the leader of our new Catholic Schools Network, Dr. Liz Guneratne. Both of these charismatic and highly educated women are a superb addition to our diocesan leadership team.
As we begin the new school year, I'd also like to recognize the principals and presidents of our Catholic elementary and secondary schools. You, and the teachers you hire, carry on the mission of The Good Shepherd, in taking care of Christ's children. Not only that, Catholic educators have a unique role in one of the primary missions of the Church: To form missionary disciples. You will be a success if your students leave your school — and your classroom — being a friend and a disciple of Jesus Christ.
How do we do that?
There are many ways, but I'd like to emphasize two: 1. Teach the Catholic Faith with seriousness and intellectual rigor. 2. Provide opportunities for students to experience the love and friendship of Jesus.
I once read an Op-Ed piece in The Tablet, one of Britain's leading Catholic journals, written by a young woman who had just completed 12 years of Catholic school education and was now a freshman at Oxford University. She was really upset that, although she had received an outstanding education in the secular subjects of science, math, history, languages, etc., her religious education was trite and absolutely boring.
She was angry because she could not answer the basic questions about Catholicism put to her by her well-educated classmates. As she wrote, "The extent of my religious education was 'Love God, draw a rainbow.'"
We need to give our students credit for their intelligence in the religion class as well as science and the liberal arts. Our theology courses need content. Students need to be presented with the in-depth teachings of Jesus and the Church, and the reasons why we believe.
Students should be able to articulate the answers to three questions when they leave your school: "Why do I believe in God?" "Why do I believe in Jesus Christ?" "Why do I believe in the Catholic Church?"
If you as educators (and parents) have difficulty answering these questions yourselves, may I recommend a superb book: "Fundamentals of the Faith. Essays in Christian Apologetics," by Peter Kreeft. I've given more copies of this book away than any other in my years as a priest. Kreeft teaches philosophy at Boston College, and the book is a summation of his responses to all the inquiries — and objections — college students bring up about the Catholic Faith.
The second area we need to emphasize is experience. To know about Jesus is one thing. To know Jesus is another.
I ask educators in our Catholic schools to use all the means our Catholic religion provides to lead students to Christ:
Reverent and prayerful Masses, and worthy reception of Holy Communion. Days of Recollection and Retreats. Guided examination of conscience and making a good confession. Stations of the Cross and Benediction in Lent. Processions in honor of Our Lady — especially for Our Lady of Guadalupe. Adoration of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Practicing the daily Examen, (using resources found in the Sacred Story Institute), and other forms of prayer. Practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Serving the poor and needy, the lonely and the elderly. Remind students that when they help in a soup kitchen or St. Vincent de Paul food pantry, they are feeding Christ in the person of the poor. And there are many more.
Once when I was celebrating Confirmation in a parish I decided to ask the high school age candidates some questions. I asked the group "Why do you believe in God?" The kids were shy — and terrified — and no one raised their hand. The pastor, seated on the altar behind me, shouted out, "Bobby Smith, stand up and answer the bishop!" The boy stood up in front of the entire congregation, and said clearly, "I believe in God because when I look at the universe, I see how carefully everything is designed and connected. It cannot be just by chance. I believe someone designed and created all this."
Perfect. It is St. Thomas Aquinas' "proofs for the existence of God."
I asked again, and this time a girl raised her hand, stood up and said, "I believe in God, because I can feel Him in my heart, and He answers my prayers." Intellect and experience, mind and heart, are both important in handing on our Faith.
I want to thank parents for sending their children to Catholic schools. I thank all our teachers, administrators and staff members for your hard work and example. If I could make a banner to advertise our schools, it would read thus: "Diocese of Oakland Catholic Schools — For a Christ-centered Education."
May God bless all our students as they begin this new academic year.
[Note: These were Bishop Barber's remarks to a meeting of presidents and principals of Diocese of Oakland Catholic schools on Aug. 7.]
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