Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why Catholic Schools

During my almost 32 years of being a priest, I have been assigned to three parishes in MA and three parishes in Arizona that had Catholic schools.  I was pastor at St. Benedict’s when St. John Bosco was constructed and opened.  The face of Catholic schools has changed, but their essential nature ~ their reason for existence ~ hasn’t changed since the first Catholic school in the USA.  History tells us that the first parish school opened in 1782 at Philadelphia ~ if you don’t count the school the Franciscans opened in what was to become St. Augustine Fl in 1606.  Catholic schools flourished, mostly because anti-Catholic bias also flourished.  Pastors and parents wanted to be sure their children received a good education, and one that was not blatantly anti-Catholic.
One of Jesus’ last statements was: “Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  There are two challenges here… to teach and to observe.  As a church, we have a responsibility not only to teach the word of God, but also teach how to live that word of God.  I think Catholic schools are the best way to teach the word and to live it… outside the family.
At the end of the 19th century, our Catholic predecessors realized that, even though they were living their Catholic heritage at home, there was a need for their children to receive a more intense exposure to their faith and Catholic heritage where these children spent most of their day ~ their school.
Even long ago, there were elements contrary to the catholic faith that parents felt would cause harm to their children.  So, they began, with great sacrifice, what has become the Catholic school system in the USA.  They were established, not to compete with other schools, but to offer what other schools couldn’t or wouldn’t offer.  Their job was, and still it, to offer the best of human education with the best of Catholic formation.
Parishes found dedicated religious orders to teach in these schools.  They took the best of human knowledge in math, science, social studies and all other subjects and wove into the normal lessons of the classroom the content of our faith, as well as the values of our heritage ~ all this in addition to teaching formal religion classes.
That same methodology is used today, despite the changes in the externals of Catholic schools.  There are few religious teaching these days, although I have been working hard to locate an order of religious to come to Annunciation when we open our full 8 grades in just over a year.  Our lay teachers share the same spirit of dedication.  There are fewer schools in the USA, but the same mission is there.  I’m happy to say that Annunciation is in the forefront of education and formation.  You parents obviously see the need to reinforce Catholic values that you teach in the home.
We live in an increasingly secular and materialistic society whose values are often at odds with our Catholic beliefs.  The media is quite hostile to our Catholic church.  These values we hold dear are constantly being threatened in popular culture, the media, and even the laws of our state and country’s government.
I read recently about a campus ministry program sponsored by a non-Catholic college.  One of their projects was BYOB… Build Your Own Belief.  I don’t understand how Catholic families are willing to spend so much money every year to send a child to a college that has adopted secular values and made them into a religion.
Our social structures in the past, reinforced basic Christian values… they now have been replaced by secular structures that make even the basics difficult.  Any pastor can tell you, that religious instruction and sacrament preparation has to compete against entertainment and sports that have taken on a priority greater than life with God.
So, our children today need the program that only a Catholic school can offer.  We believe that the answer to the question: “Why did God make me? is “God made me to be happy with him forever in heaven.  We live in a world where science want to control reproduction with no room for God; where happiness is something to be purchased; and where “forever” has the life expectancy of a few months or years.
Catholic schools today try to unite faith, culture and life by having the freedom to take the best of human wisdom, analyze and incorporate that wisdom into the life of faith, and give us a life filled with meaning.  In some schools “do the math” means get a correct answer.  In Catholic schools, “do the math” should mean, “count your blessings!”
Annunciation and other Catholic schools are a blessing for families, for children and the entire church community that benefits and will benefit from the lives of these children.  We present a vision of life inspired by Jesus, not the vision that is often portrayed in music or film today.  We bring out the best that our students can offer.
Sometimes I meet other pastors who question the value of Catholic schools, especially when parents are lackluster about their faith and commitment to the parish.  The real question for parents is: “why do I choose Catholic schools?”
Parents are the best and first teachers of their children in the ways of faith.  No matter what Catholic schools do to share the lived-out Catholic faith, children learn more from their parents.  Don’t be concerned about your children’s faith life.  Your children will live out their faith in the same way that you live out yours. 
There is a challenge there… a challenge to make your faith-lives strong… as strong as what we at Annunciation are trying to do with the children you entrust to our care.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Body and Blood of Christ...

The question of exactly when the eucharistic gifts become Christ's Body and Blood has commanded attention and debate for centuries.
From the supper at Emmaus, disciples have cherished the Eucharist as the clearest sign of the Risen Lord's abiding presence.  Yet, beginning in the Middle Ages, for a thousand years laypeople in the West seldom received Communion, and even then only under the form of bread.  For that reason knowing when Christ became present at Mass was a key to spiritual life, since the ordinary way of worship was looking at the consecrated Host raised high over the priest's head rather than eating it.  Medieval scholars ~ all priests ~ naturally looked at the Eucharistic Prayer and the cherished memory of the words and deeds of Jesus at the Last Supper, called the "Institution Narrative."  The winning answer in the debate was keyed to the words of the priest: "This is my body." (in Latin ~ “Hoc est enim corpus meum.”)
Today, the answer can be found in the Catechism, but also by observing the liturgy.  The Catechism says that as soon as the Institution Narrative begins, the Lord is present in the elements of bread and wine.  That is why the universal law of the church directs the assembly to kneel for this part of the Eucharistic Prayer.
The ritual direction in the Roman Missal says that after the Institution Narrative, the "priest holds the consecrated host and shows it to the congregation."  The postures and gestures and texts of the liturgy are clear that the transformation is already complete midway through the Eucharistic Prayer.
The same question never captured the attention of the Eastern Catholic traditions.  For them, the critical moment has always been the epiclesis, or the calling down of the Holy Spirit on the gifts of bread and wine and the assembly.  The priest extends his hands over the gifts and asks the Holy Spirit "that they may become us into the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ."  For an Eastern Christian, that's the critical moment.
There is a deeper, more personal question.  At what point do we become the Body and Blood of Christ?  The bread and wine is not consecrated for its own sake, after all, but for the good of the church and for the world.  The question is worth thinking over.  Maybe knowing the answer to "when" the bread and wine are transformed will lead to the more critical and personal question as to "why" the Lord comes to us in Holy Communion.
During this season of Lent, let's each of us look at that question, and find out just what happens inside of us as a direct result of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass.  Then and only then, will we be able to bring Christ to the world in which we live.