February 2 each year marks the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, based on the Gospel of Luke 2:22-40. Formerly known as the “Feast of the Purification of Mary,” the day commemorates the Holy Family’s visit to the Temple in Jerusalem for Mary’s ritual purification 40 days after childbirth, and the presentation of Jesus as a first born son according to the Torah.
The Gospel passage has a special place in Catholic hearts. In my own (boomer) generation, mothers often brought their newborns to church privately, placed them on the steps of the altar, and asked for God’s protection for their infant daughters and sons. And over the years I’ve been surprised by the many faithful Catholic men and women I meet — leaders of character and skill in the Church and in the general public – who speak of that same, simple act of piety in their own lives by a mother or father.
Every human soul is made for heaven, and the greatest act of love parents can give their newborn, beyond Baptism itself, is dedicating their child to God’s service and grace.
I mention this for three reasons.
First, this week is Catholic Schools Week. It’s a time for all of us to take pride in the superb education offered by Catholic parish and secondary schools across our archdiocese. The model for the American parish school began in Philadelphia, and today our schools continue to model the best in Catholic education — i.e., a formation in academic and moral excellence for the mind and for the soul.
The key to that excellence is the dedication of the thousands of our teachers, staffers, administrators, volunteers, and parents who offer their service at great sacrifice to themselves out of love for the young people in their care. They deserve our support and gratitude; they enthusiastically have mine.
Children are the future not just of our nation, but also of our faith. This makes a genuinely Catholic education so vital. A faithfully Catholic school presents young people to the Lord and the Lord to young people in a uniquely powerful way. It’s why I urge every Catholic family to find a way to place their children in a Catholic school. The Church needs her next generation of faithful leaders — and now as in the past, those leaders will overwhelmingly come from Catholic schools.
My second reason is this: Even the best schools with the finest staff and teachers can’t fulfill their mission if their classrooms are empty. We need more large Catholic families. We need more parents willing to trust in God and bring new life abundantly into the world, no matter what the cost. The future belongs to the fertile, to the hopeful, to those with the courage to trust that life is good, that more family is better, and that God will guide us to solve the problems the world presents.
Nothing is more beautiful than the habits of mutual dependence and support learned inside a large and loving family. The addiction to infertility that dominates so much of today’s popular culture is a one-way road to dead souls and an empty future. Choosing against new life has never been the Catholic way, and if we want a future as a Church, we need to turn again toward welcoming the children God sends.
Finally, my third reason is this. When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus to the Temple priests, they knew the child would be welcomed as a blessing and a gift. Philadelphia has always been a children-welcoming Church. But nationwide, not all our parish communities can say the same. A friend from out of state wrote me the following words recently, and they’re worth sharing here:
“Our pews are filled with families who need affirmation, not criticism, for noisy children in church. The National Center for Health Statistics reported a 2017 total fertility rate for our country that is 16 percent below the level for a population to replace itself. This is the lowest total fertility rate in the United States since 1978. Aside from the adverse moral effects that come from a collapsing birth rate, there are numerous social and economic consequences. Family size is associated with labor and economic growth, which affects national and state levels.
“Why are we not hearing from the pulpit more encouragement and thanksgiving for young families attempting to attend church to teach their children faith from the beginning? Many of our churches have removed their cry rooms, and parents bringing their young children to Mass are made to feel embarrassed or even asked to leave if their children cry or make noise. Consider this: So many of us routinely pray the Vocations Prayer for more priests and religious while never really encouraging families to have more children, or being patient with the few who do have. To give life is the purpose of love, yet we as a Church, the one true Church, too often don’t model our own teachings with our actions.”
My point is this: Our God is the God of abundant life. And young children are a gift — not always a convenient one; not always a quiet one; but always a beautiful and blessed one. Something we all might remember at the next noisy Mass.
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