By Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M. Coadjutor Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton
This September will be the first time in 50 years that I have not gone “back to school.” I must confess, it feels a bit strange not getting ready for that annual, post-summer event.
It seems as though I have spent my entire life in schools of one form or another: Catholic elementary and high schools, Catholic colleges and seminaries, back to a Catholic high school to teach after ordination, then to The Catholic University of America for graduate studies, back to the seminary to teach, then to St. John’s and Niagara Universities to administer and, finally, back to The Catholic University of America to serve as president. Of all the studying and teaching and administering that have filled up the past half-century of my life, there is a common thread that runs through it all: the word “Catholic.”
Like so many of us in my generation, I was blessed to receive a Catholic education. It began in my home, before I marched off to the parish school, with the good example of my parents. You really cannot exaggerate the importance of that.
My parents did not “wear their religion on their sleeves” but there was never a doubt that they were people of faith who loved their Church. They prayed, went to Sunday Mass and quizzed my brothers and me on the Baltimore Catechism. The Catholic faith was important to them, so much so that they were willing to make the sacrifices necessary to ensure that we both “learned” and “lived” it. Those are two important words and the first is essential if the second is to follow. Young people – our daughters and sons – need to “learn” their faith before they can “live” it.
We live in a time when the sacrifices required to make Catholic education possible and available can seem insurmountable. It is also a sad fact of life that the Church simply cannot maintain all of the institutions and organizations it had in the past to carry on this significant work. While there are numerous reasons for this reality, no one seems as comprehensive as that of finances. Sad but true.
We also live in a time when the need for Catholic education and Catholic faith values has never been greater. The questions and answers raised in the Baltimore Catechism are still the same and still important for our Catholic life but they are not as widely known and presented.
Our way of educating – our pedagogy – has changed in many good and positive ways but, when talking with young people about their faith, I cannot help but feel something is missing. They easily understand how important it is to help others and to show Christian love in this world – more than I ever did at their age – but they do not as easily connect service and their desire to serve others with the One who said “I stand among you as One who serves (Luke 22: 28)” and with His teachings in the Church.
Catholic education helps make that connection. Catholic learning and Catholic living go hand in hand.
Not everyone can or, perhaps, even wants to go to Catholic school or college. As long as one does not abandon, at the same time, his or her responsibilities to know and practice the faith of our Baptism and Catholic sacramental life, “place” is not the most important thing. But, somehow, someway, the Catholic faith must be handed on in its fullness, without dilution or compromise, to current as well as to successive generations of Catholics. They need to learn it so they can live it and know they are living it.
For some, that will occur through our wonderful Catholic schools and colleges. If that happens, thanks be to God!
For others, that will occur through other vibrant, engaging Catholic religious education programs offered to those for whom Catholic school is not possible. If that happens, thanks be to God!
For still others – especially adults who continually need to grow in and deepen their faith – that will occur through well-prepared, inspiring and meaningful homilies at Mass when the truths of our faith and their scriptural bases are presented to the Catholic faithful. If that happens, thanks be to God!
But if these things do not happen, we, as Catholics, are in trouble. If these things do not happen, we, as Catholics, do not have much hope for the future. If these things do not happen, we, as Catholics, have no one to blame but ourselves.
Catholic parents, hand on and witness the Catholic faith and make sure it is learned and lived in your families. Catholic teachers, teach and witness the Catholic faith and make sure it is learned and lived in your classrooms and schools. Catholic priests, deacons and other Catholic ministers (yes, and bishops, too!), preach and witness the Catholic faith and make sure it is learned and lived in your churches and gathering places.
It will take the effort of every Catholic and of all Catholics to make this happen, each according to his or her role and responsibility.
Perhaps I was too hasty when I wrote that this September will be the “first time in 50 years that I have not gone ‘back to school.’” For the Catholic, our education can and never should end! Back to school!