Other schools teach the “test”; in Catholic schools we teach the “yes”. We want our kids to follow the example of Mary, the first disciple, who with complete freedom – for she was sinless – said “Yes” to God when he asked her collaboration in bringing to fulfillment his plan for the salvation of the world.
How’s that for a “mission statement” for our Catholic schools. Now, if we were going to count of our own efforts, if we didn’t know that God is with us, constantly guiding us through the gift of his Spirit, this would be “mission impossible”. We are faced with a formidable task. Our culture today discourages any “yes”. We see this in the numbers of people who flee from commitment – especially anything that might lead to a permanent commitment. I think this is what lies behind our “Vocations Crisis” – and here I am not just talking about vocations to the priesthood and religious life. There is also a crisis to the vocation of marriage – at least understood as a permanent commitment. If you look at the statistics – not only are numbers of applications to a religious vocation disappointingly low, the vocation to marriage isn’t doing that well either.
What has happened? And how can teaching the “yes” be the answer? First of all, today the popular culture which is certainly individualistic – and perhaps narcissistically self-absorbed (it’s all about me, isn’t it?) holds that any “yes” is necessarily a limitation on my freedom. We want choices – it is no secret that the murder of preborn children is cloaked under the rubric of choice, the freedom to choose. We want choices – but when faced with myriad of choices, how difficult it is to decide. We don’t want to constrain ourselves. We want to keep our options open – because if I say yes to this or than, or to him or her, I may be in fact saying “no” to myself. It goes back to the fall from grace in Paradise. Adam and Eve thought that their “no” to God would be translated in a “yes” for themselves. They were so wrong but because of that original sin, our idea of freedom is corrupted. Freedom comes to mean ‘doing as I please”, that “I can decide for myself what is good and evil”; that “I am my own arbiter of truth”; that “if I am to be truly free, I must defy God, I must refuse to submit to his rules”.
Christian revelation teaches the exact opposite – and Christian revelation offers us as models two of the freest persons ever to have lived: Jesus and his Immaculate, that is, his sinless, Mother. They were free precisely because they were not dominated or enslaved by sin or than tendency to sin we inherited from our first parents, what St. Augustine called concupiscence. Freedom is the ability not to do as we please but to do as we ought, to be the persons that God created to be. It’s the ability to say Yes to God and his plan for us – and not only to say Yes but to live the Yes.
In today’s culture in which we and the kids are being given a contrary message, we have a difficult road to travel, and don’t be surprise if that road takes us by Calvary’s way, the way of the Cross. Be we are not alone. We count on God and the help of his grace; but that does not mean that the stakes are not high.
Which is why we invest in Catholic schools – because, we can teach the “yes”. In today’s first reading, St. Paul asks for prayers for the king and earthy authorities. He was by no means a sycophant. He could speak the truth to power when called for. He was simply praying that earthly authorities leave us alone so that we could teach the truth, for God our savior wills everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. So we can thank God that, despite the fact that prejudice against Catholicism, expressed in “Blaine amendments” in most of our states, is why our parents are penalized by the state for sending their kids to Catholic schools, we are still free enough in this country to “teach the yes”, to teach our kids to be truly free.
And to do just that Catholic schools must be about what is written on your program: character, compassion, values. (Let me just make a small edit, strike out “values” and write in “virtue”. Catholic schools are about character, compassion and virtues – because these are the qualities that will make us free to say yes, to say yes to excellence as in the sense of St. Ignatius of Antioch’s maxim: the glory of God is man fully alive. This freedom for excellence is far from the idea of freedom present in our society – and too often in our homes and in our public institutions of learning – the “freedom” that I decide what’s good for me. Freedom for excellence is the freedom to commit oneself to the pursuit of the good; it’s the freedom to say yes to God, it’s the freedom to become holy, to become a saint.
Pope John Paul II, in his post-Jubilee Apostolic Letter, Novo Millenio Ineunte, reminds us that since we are called to be holy, that to become holy is the purpose of our lives on earth, then it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity marked by a minimalist ethic and a superficial religiosity.
Recently I came across this definition of freedom – by a student of St. Thomas Aquinas – it reads: freedom is a desire so ordered and so disciplined as to make the achievement of the good first possible and then effortless. Here, there is no contradiction between freedom and following the rules. Here, commitment doesn’t limit one’s freedom; it is how one expresses one’s freedom. And isn’t character “disciplined freedom in pursuit of the good”? And aren’t virtues learned habits that make doing the good appear “effortless”?
Allow me to borrow an example from the sports world. Michael Jordan was perhaps the greatest basketball player ever to have played the game. On the court he was free to do pretty much anything with the basketball. I’m sure that Michael started off with a love of the game but that did not mean he did not have to practice, practice, practice; nor were the rules of the game a matter of indifference to him. He became a great basketball player not by flaunting the rules – or picking and choosing which ones matters; no, the rules became second nature to him. He was, you could say, a virtuous player – because he excel in all aspect of the game.
Well, the mission of Catholic schools is to make our kids love God’s game plan for their lives. We got to teach them that they can be holy – and to embrace the pursuit of that holiness with a resounding yes, a liberating yes to the knowledge of the truth, the truth that makes us free – free to order and to discipline our desires towards achieving the good for which we were created, free enough to do the good that God asks of us.
Pope Benedict XVI in his first homily as Pope challenged us by echoing John Paul II’s words of almost 27 years ago: Be not afraid to open the doors to Christ. Pope Benedict finished his homily with these words:
“Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.”
Isn’t wonderful to be a Catholic School teacher? So many other teachers only can teach the test, you can teach the Yes.
Bishop Thomas Wenski
September 12, 2005