As I mentioned in my homily last week, when I visited New York City a few months ago, for all of the amazing buildings, scenery, and of course great food, one of the places that struck me most was the shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.
The first native-born American saint, she was instrumental in starting the Catholic School System by opening a girls Catholic School and founding the Sisters of Charity. From that small school and order, our Catholic school system blossomed.
What really struck me with that shrine though is it is a small church surrounded by buildings and a huge city. It could easily have been sold for millions of dollars, but is preserved as a place of prayer. But it also symbolizes to me how as Catholics, we live in the culture but are not defined by it. Rather, we try to change culture for the better by focusing on what matters most, learning how to be a good citizen, live a good life, but also educating ourselves not just with what will bring us success in the world, but will help get us to heaven.
This is what makes our Catholic School system so important. In the Catholic schools, we have access to things that do a lot to help students grow academically, but at the same time, we are able to talk about why our faith is so important, and help the students to live it out.
We start Catholic Schools Week this week, our annual celebration of the Catholic school system in our country. And while there’s a lot to be said about Catholic schools, my hope is that as we celebrate this important week, we keep a few things in mind.
- This is, and always will be, our school. One of the things some priests who are pastors at a parish with a school deal with is the divide that can exist in a parish between “school” people and “church” people. While of course many people send their kids to our school or went to Saint Joe’s themselves growing up, others of course have no children in the school. But both here, in my last parish which had a school too, and wherever the rest of my priesthood takes me, so long as I serve in a parish with a school I will always preach the same thing: this is our school. The church and school are one; literally the same building, but all part of the same family. Any parish that has a school has it as part of it’s operating budget, and as part of the parish. This means that whether a person had children or not, or whether or not they go to the school, a portion of their donation will support the mission of the school. It’s a great investment. So, too, do we support the school through prayers, and through our involvement in school activities.
- Living out the faith. Jesus, when He calls the apostles as we heard last week, says “come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” The apostles though begin the journey, but they also have to complete it and act on the call – hence the book Acts of the Apostles as they do this, and work with Jesus in His ministry. Going to Mass, saying prayers, these things are important – but if we do not actually think about what our prayers mean, there’s a disconnect. And this is what is so wonderful about our school: we try to make sure the connection is always there between learning the faith and living it out. Our students celebrate Mass weekly, but throughout the year there is so much more. There is a constant emphasis on respect of others, from anti-bullying to befriending other students. There are service projects during the year, and an emphasis on family with grandparents day and lots of parental involvement. Our students learn how to integrate Catholic teachings, how to focus on social justice, and truly live the faith. Anyone can say “I’m a Christian,” but being a Christian takes work – something that is emphasized to our students.
- Teachers see it as a vocation, not just a job. I’ve been consistently amazed at our principal, Kelly Roche, and how hard she and the teachers have worked in seeing what they do as a true vocation. A wise priest told our class a week before ordination, gentleman, there are priests who are station managers and those who are entrepreneurs; be the latter. By this, what he meant is that there are those who punch a clock and work as a means to a paycheck, and those who think bigger. Who want to leave a lasting impact, do new things, and work hard in the vineyard. I see so many entrepreneurs here. Our preschool is a testament to that. Through the efforts of many, it came to fruition, and Shannon Carroll, our preschool director, has helped the preschool to truly blossom. And when I walk into a classroom, when I see a teacher giving a child one-on-one attention; or just the positive attitude and demeanor expressed by the staff, I have to tell you it’s so great to see these things so often. Our teachers are so important in forming us for the rest of our lives, and the staff at our school truly does what they do for the children. We are so blessed to have them.
- We have a great curriculum. At Saint Joseph’s, our students are able to get a well-rounded education. There’s the faith component, but also a strong curriculum emphasizing the language arts, writing and math. Graduates of our school consistently excel in high school because of the foundation they receive in preschool through the eighth grade at Saint Joseph’s. On top of this, through service work, they learn how to live out their faith and what is required to be a good steward.
Looking at our school, as I said it truly is a special place. Academically, the school has excellent standards and helps kids to be truly prepared for the next phase of their education. But even more importantly, the children are prepared for the next phases of life and grow in virtue. Children leave Saint Joe’s not just prepared for high school, but better prepared for sainthood.
Celebrating this wonderful week, I’d like to thank all who support our school and please keep all involved in our school, from staff to volunteers to the students and alumni, in your prayers. As you consider education options for your family, I hope you’d consider sending your children to our school or preschool next year too, because it really has so much to offer. We truly have something very special in our parish school – so let’s celebrate that not just one week out of the year, but every day of the year as part of our parish mission and identity.