Bishop's Column

Forming saints for the 21st century

By Bishop James Conley   

The first time Pope St. John Paul II sent a message to Americans, it was a letter to teachers.

He had been pope for less than six months. He had met with some American bishops, of course, but he had not yet travelled to the United States for the first time, or sent a message to a uniquely American audience. The pope had been a life-long learner. He had two doctorates. He had been a university professor, and a college chaplain. He loved to talk with seminarians, or camp with university students, or visit elementary school classrooms in Krakow, where he had been archbishop.

An on April 16, 1979, he wrote to the Catholic school teachers, principals, and administrators of the United States. “The goal of Catholic education itself must be crystal clear,” he told them. “Catholic education is above all a question of communicating Christ,” he wrote, “of helping to form Christ in the lives of others.” The future saint went on to say that, “The cause of Catholic education is the cause of Jesus Christ and of his Gospel at the service of man.”

His letter was a gift to the Catholic schools of our country. It set a noble and beautiful vision. Our schools must have a clear goal, he said. And that goal must be forming hearts and minds to love Jesus Christ. Very simply, our schools must make saints!

Last week, the Church in the United States celebrated Catholic Schools Week. The theme of the week was “Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed.” The idea is that learning, serving, and leading foster success. That’s true. But the key to any endeavor is to know what success looks like, to know the signs of achieving your goal.

And the only worthwhile way to measure the success of our Catholic schools is to ask whether or not we are forming saints. We know that our Catholic schools succeed when our students are patient, charitable, and kind. We know that we are succeeding when our classrooms are filled with wonder, awe, and gratitude for the good things the Lord has given us. We know we’ve been successful when our students practice works of mercy, when they worship the Lord in Holy Mass and adoration, and spend their lives in generous Christian vocations: in families, in religious life, and in the sacred priesthood.

I had the opportunity to travel around the Diocese of Lincoln last week, visiting many of our Catholic elementary and high schools, and celebrating all-school Masses with the students, faculty, staff and parents. In three of our high schools we had an all-school Eucharistic procession through the hallways and classrooms of the school, claiming every inch of the building and facilities for Jesus Christ. It was an awesome sight to behold, seeing the students kneeling in front of their lockers, singing and adoring our Eucharistic Lord as he passed by.

I am proud that in the Diocese of Lincoln, our schools are forming holy men and women, and have been doing so for generations. And this year, in honor of Catholic Schools Week, I would like to thank the teachers, priests, religious, and staff who commit themselves to the work of forming saints. It is also important to thank our parents for their good work in forming their children for holiness, for parents and families are the first and primary educators of their children.

Catholic Schools Week reminds us to be faithful to the measure of success the Lord has conveyed, to be faithful to our call to form students to become saints.

Too often, education can become solely a kind of functionalist and utilitarian preparation for a career. Too often, schools teach us how to make a living, but not how to live. Catholic education has to be different. It can’t fall into the trap of thinking that our students succeed only because of high ACT scores, or victory on the athletic field, or because they are accepted to elite colleges or universities. Those things can be good. But they only really matter if they help us to know, love, and serve the Lord. Catholic schools students are successful because of who they become, not because of what they can do, or what worldly accolades they merit.

Catholic school students are successful when they live in faith, hope, and charity—when they learn how to love as God calls them.

Catholic education, Pope St. John Paul wrote, “is above all a question of communicating Christ, and helping his uplifting Gospel to take root in the hearts of the faithful.” May our schools help the Gospel to take root in the hearts of our students. And may each one of them become a saint.

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