On September 4, tens of thousands of students across the Archdiocese of Philadelphia return to class for a new academic year in our 123 parish schools, 17 secondary schools and four schools for persons with special needs. Philadelphia rightly claims one of the finest Catholic educational systems in North America. Catholics across the archdiocese can take pride in its extraordinary achievements, which include, most recently, our 15 schools honored by the U.S. Department of Education for their “blue ribbon” excellence.
It’s a good moment to consider some history.
Catholic schools began in this country in the early 19th century, and Philadelphia played a leading role in their founding. Catholics started them as an alternative to the public schools of the day, which taught a curriculum often critical of Catholic belief. In many ways times have changed, but the mission of Catholic schools – quite properly – has remained. The main purpose of Catholic schools is religious; in other words, to form students in Catholic faith, Catholic morality and Catholic social values.
We place great importance on the academic excellence of our schools. The reason is simple. A strong, well-rounded academic education helps to create mature citizens who build up the wider community. We also take great pride in our schools that exist as a service outreach in largely non-Catholic communities, welcoming students of every faith and no faith. These schools too are a vital part of our mission.
In all of her social, spiritual and educational ministry, the Church seeks to benefit all persons of good will. We’re grateful for our role in serving Philadelphia’s families; and we’re grateful to help cultivate the next generation of Philadelphia leaders – Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
Nonetheless, our schools exist primarily to develop the whole human person with an education shaped by Catholic faith, virtue and moral formation. The goal of the Church, and by extension, the goal of all Catholic education, is to make disciples.
God renews the world with our actions, not our intentions. What separates real discipleship from surface piety is whether we actually do what we say we believe.
Our vocation as Christians is not simply to pass along good morals to our children, or to convey a sense of God’s hand in the world. These things are vital, of course; but they don’t exhaust our purpose for being here. Our mission is to bring the world to Jesus Christ, and to bring Jesus Christ to the world. Each of us is called to be a missionary at baptism, and our primary task is the conversion of our own hearts and the hearts of others, so that someday the whole world will acknowledge Jesus Christ as humanity’s savior and Lord.
That’s a big job. We can’t do it by just talking about it, any more than Christ could redeem us by writing an essay on sin. The Gospels have power because they tell the story of what God did; what his only Son did; and what Christ’s followers did. The Passion accounts of Christ’s suffering and death move us so deeply because they show in vivid detail how unashamedly God loves us.
This is the hot spark at the heart of every sincere attempt to tell the story of our redemption. God spared not even his own Son in saving us. It’s no wonder the cross draws the eye of great artists again and again down through the centuries. The cross reminds us that — at least on one day in history — love had no limits. And since then, everything has been different.
God built the Church we’ve inherited through the love of generations of believers. Their generosity and witness made our faith possible. It’s now our turn to shape the future by the zeal we bring to our own daily witness, especially with young people. It’s our turn to act. It’s our turn to live our Catholic faith with all the courage and strength Christ brought to loving the Church he founded.
The Church depends on God who will always protect her. But she also depends on you and me — teachers, principals, pastors, deacons, catechists, parents and devoted single Catholics — to carry Christ’s mission into the world.
On September 4, when the doors of our schools open, let’s remember to pray for the young people we’re privileged to educate. And let’s also recall the reason our schools exist. Each of these students is eternally precious and infinitely loved by God. What they learn in our classrooms, they need to see lived with joy in our lives.
Words are important. Actions are more important. We need to live our Catholic faith as the apostles did; and through the young people that our witness forms, God will reshape the world.