Fr. Joseph Johnson, pastor at Holy Family in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, recently spoke at The Saint Paul Seminary on the importance of holistic formation in Catholic education. The talk was given as part of the seminary’s Certificate in Catholic School Leadership program. A transcript of Fr. Johnson’s remarks is below.
The first school that was a Catholic school that I ever attended was a pontifical university in Rome. So what do I know about Catholic schools?
My father often complained about the cost of my education. He would say I paid taxes for the public school. I contributed to parish for the parish school, and I paid tuition for your private school, but don’t feel too sorry for him. It was his decision, not mine. You see, my father had gone to Catholic schools all through his education. My Irish Catholic grandmother sought to it that all of her children did. She scrapped and save to make it possible.
Yet, my father’s experience was not good. He watched his older brother come home every week from piano lessons with swollen and bloody hands, for each wrong note on the piano his teacher would make him extend his hands on top of the piano and would wrap his knuckles. Yes, the mean nun with the ruler actually did exist. My uncle’s piano skills did not improve from this pedagogical method. And my father already as a child formed the resolution that if he ever grew up and had children, they would never, ever go to a Catholic school. It was probably my grandmother’s daily devotion that kept him in the faith at all. Not so for my uncle; he rarely darkened the door of a church in his adulthood.
As I was about to enter high school, I was just starting to have a spark of interest in my faith. It was surely the gift of the Holy Spirit, work for the two fantastic nuns who taught my Sunday school class, preparing for confirmation. About to enroll in a very elite private school, I chanced upon mention of the nearby Catholic high school with similar academic rigor. I thought, wow, could I have both a great education and also help my soul to grow? The answer was a resounding, no. My father said, “no.” And it turns out that the local Catholic high school wasn’t all that it should be. My college roommate attended that high school, and he and I would later have many long chats about his experience there. He encountered a watered-down version of the gospel that amounted to nothing more than “be nice.” It didn’t explain any of life’s great questions — most especially not about suffering or the heroic call within us to something more. He stopped attending mass then stopped believing.
In college, we would have endless debates about theology. We compared our life experiences. I could share ideas with him, but I could never quite convince him that there was something there worth living for something even perhaps worth dying for. In his teenage years, he had struggled with the breakup of this family through divorce. He yearned for some answer to the pain in his life, but all he heard at school was, be nice. He needed help. Instead, he got platitudes. Looking at the world around him, he noticed that alcohol, sex, money seemed to take the pain away for others. So he went down that path of emotional anesthesia. No one had introduced him to the crucified Lord Jesus who’s able to transform our sufferings. I love him like a brother, to this day I still pray for him that someday God’s grace makes his wounds a path to faith instead of away from it.
And I’m happy to say that I see no evidence for the existence for the type of Catholic school that my father attended. It was a product of its age, which has thankfully passed; even back then, I’m sure that it was just a few rotten apples that spoiled the barrel deflecting happy stories, from those days of children’s lives were incredibly blessed by their Catholic schools.
I also thank God profoundly for the opportunity to work closely with several congregations of sisters over the last 30 years at various areas of ministry. They have resoundingly proved to be the beauty of religious life, despite the negative experiences, my father, and some others.
Sadly, I still see some Catholic schools that are similar to the one my roommate went to. And though each person’s free will is certainly at work, there’s often a failure on our part to present young people with an attractive and compelling vision of a life lived with Christ. It is not enough for our schools to avoid harming students with rulers. We promise more, our Catholic identity advertises that we will in fact, give them the tools they need to discover the meaning of life.
What’s it all about?
My private school gave me what I call the Norman Rockwell vision of life. Work hard, be honest, help your neighbor, and then you’ll enjoy a loving family, a good career, and a fast car. All while living in a house with a white picket fence, and eating apple pie. There is nothing evil about this vision, but it leaves out something very important. Or should I say someone very important?
There are such things as sins of omission; non-Catholic schools can be excused for not leading the students to Jesus Christ. Our Catholic schools cannot be excused for failing to do so. In fact, we do real harm to our students, if we advertise that we are Christ centered, but then don’t offer them an adequate path to growing closer into Christ.
The tragic statistic is that some 70 to 80 percent of Catholic students have stopped practicing their faith by the time they graduate from college. We can’t just blame that on colleges. This wouldn’t happen to near the same extent, if would give them a more solid foundation of faith in deeper roots in the sacramental life in the church.
So let’s talk about Catholic education at the elementary and secondary level.
Now, I chuckled, to see the description of this talk on the flyer for tonight. I’m apparently a champion of Catholic schools. So goes the marketing. With my background, the question remains, how did I get to be a champion for Catholic education? It has more to do with my roommate than my father and my uncle. God has worked miracles in my life, despite my lack of going to a Catholic school. But the fact is, I wish that I had the education that I see in so many of our beautiful Catholic schools today. I am passionately convinced of the need to provide dynamic Catholic education to the youth of today. I also think that we still have plenty of room for improvement.
Forgive me, if the bulk of my talk is not praising all those many things we do very well, but instead analyzing a little bit about where that room for improvement lies. Too often, our efforts have been focused on the pragmatic matters of increasing enrollment numbers and doing effective fundraising to keep tuition as low as possible. This is the mundane side of Catholic education. Accomplishing, everything that we do with the limited resources we have is why so many Catholic educators are real heroes. Teaching through a pandemic is but one example of the sacrifices made by teachers and administrators. What our Catholic schools do day in and day out truly is heroic, but is not yet enough.
Now you might stop listening when I say this next part, but I will anyway; let me be brutally honest, I don’t always feel like being a champion for Catholic education. There have been times in the past two years, when I have bluntly told the folks at the chancery, I never want be assigned to a parish with a school ever again. It’s a pain to run a Catholic school. It’s expensive, it’s exhausting, and it requires making many decisions that are going tick off people sooner or later. Anyone else here have to deal with masks or no masks? I rest my case.
So, why am I passionately committed to Catholic education? What makes it worthwhile to put up with the hardships involved?
Someone else put it best: Vladimir Lenin, “Give me just one generation of youth and I’ll transform the whole world.” He also said, “Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I will sow will never be uprooted.”
A century later, there are still far too many people around who are impressed by the consequences of Lenin’s indoctrination.
Now, Lenin is not the only one who’s made such observation. Many centuries earlier, Aristotle said, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you a man.”
Children are impressionable. We don’t want to simply substitute Catholic indoctrination for communist indoctrination. We want our students to learn how to use their minds, to be good stewards of their bodies and recognize the beauty of their souls. We want them to ask questions about the meaning of life. We want to lead them to the truth and truth is a person, Jesus Christ.
Parents are the primary educators of their children, but they need partners. We need parents to interact with us as more than clients who drop off their children to receive a product. We need to share a vision with them about who God created their children to be. Our schools, Catholic and otherwise, are privileged places for the formation of our youth.
So much rests on getting this right. So much is going wrong in society because we haven’t been getting it right often enough.
Our Catholic schools have to recognize that we are the business of formation and to not just information. We need to help build a virtue in our students, not just raise their test scores. We aim to help them flourish in their baptismal location to holiness and not just in their worldly career. Even in the teaching of religion, we need to be careful. The absolutely worst thing that we can give to our youth is a bunch of abstract ideas about God and a bunch of really tough rules from God. We need to lead them to a lived relationship of love with God. Prayer and virtue formation need to infuse every aspect of a Catholic school. There will always be mistakes made by good people, we will even have to put up with a few old rotten apples that occasionally sneak in and do damage.
However, the real danger is that the vision of formation towards which we strive, sometimes becomes fuzzy without a clear goal, we inevitably get lost. If we get lost and the children we teach get lost, the blind leading the blind. We need to collaborate with parents in shaping a clear vision for the formation of our young people, as the goal of our Catholic schools. Now we’ve all been affected by the confusion of the world around us. And we need to seek clarity, parents and teachers, we need formation ourselves.
We should all be lifelong learners, anyway. There’s such a beauty in God’s creation and in the mystery of His love for us that could never be exhausted. Do we demonstrate to our students the humility of seeking ongoing conversion of mind and heart ourselves? Cause let’s be frank, children can sniff-out a fake a mile away. Authenticity needs to be our goal.
If we aren’t committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, in all its fullness, that is all of its comforts and its challenges, then we will never convince them. No one gives what they don’t have or perhaps as Pope Saint Paul VI wrote, “This age needs witnesses more than teachers. In fact they will only listen to teachers, if they are first witnesses.”
Your authentic discipleship helps to create a culture in our schools. As the business maximum goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast. We have often employed really good strategies in our schools while neglecting the Catholic culture of our schools. This is where our vision has failed, and our students have paid a terrible price.
When the culture of our Catholic homes and our Catholic schools looks like everything else in modern America and religion is just another subject being taught then it really doesn’t matter what curriculum we are using. We have failed before we have begun. We owe our children something better. We owe them a vision of life enlightened by Christ. We owe them a place where holiness is prized even above academic or athletic prowess. We owe them a place where prayer is our spiritual oxygen, rather than something archaic and quaint, which is simply squeezed in on occasion. It’s so important to get this right.
I know you believe this, you wouldn’t be a Catholic educator if you didn’t. You wouldn’t put in the long hours, put up with the lower pay in Catholic schools, if you didn’t have a heart for giving our children the very best. You most certainly wouldn’t give up a beautiful Friday evening in the summer if you weren’t already on board. So I know I’m preaching to the choir. Let’s turn and look a little bit about how an authentic Catholic education approaches the formation of the entire human person, mind, body, and soul. It isn’t about a particular set of textbooks or pedagogical method for the following, a vision which appreciates and is guided by the light, which our Catholic faith sheds upon the dignity of the human person and the ultimate meaning of life.
Let’s start with the body. We can certainly speak in terms of health that has to include far more than diet and exercise. Certainly we do want to locate a basic sense of good stewardship of our bodies. The pandemic of junk food and childhood obesity in our nation is deeply troubling. However as much as you might think that on this bodily level we would have the most overlap with non-Catholic education, that is no longer the case. The physical aspect of education, isn’t limited to the phy. ed. class. There are numerous questions which we should ask about our educational approach to the body.
There are many important questions. We should help our students to answer about the human body, their own bodies and the bodies of others. How do we see our bodies? Do I like my body? Do I hate my body? Am I ashamed that my body’s less perfect than someone else’s? Do I think God made a mistake with my body and I’m supposed to be different? Do I think my body is unimportant, to just trap my spirit, weighs me down? The critical issues facing our youth. Self-image, eating disorders, suicidal ideation, gender dysphoria and more are often rooted in warped answers about the body. There are terrible consequences to answer these questions wrongly. In biology, do we let the facts of nature speak, and we teach the students to recognize the complementarity of the sexes? We see that the design of the human body. Do we speak of human fertility with its natural rhythms? Do we show the ultrasound images from hard science, which demonstrate that the unborn fetus is not simply a clump of tissue?
We can’t even begin to deal with issues of promiscuity, contraception, and even abortion, without some healthy foundation of how to see the body. And how do we lead students to see the bodies of others? In our hyper-sexualized society, we’re to see them as objects of lust. Do we allow the sensuality of the world to block seeing others as more than just a body? Do we address with parents, the type of online videos, television, and movies, both impure and violent, which children are often allowed to watch. Do we challenge parents to see the adverse effects on how children begin to see themselves and others?
The particular issues of sexual purity are many. The average child’s first exposure to pornography is now down around age 10. My godson just turns 10 this week, I’m horrified to think about it. Often this exposure comes through classmates at school or older siblings, but grade schools can no longer afford to avoid these issues.
We want to be faithful to a Catholic vision of human formation. Do we, first of all teach children to see others as fellow children of God? Have we gratefully received and studied the great gift of Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body. Do we teach self respect, modesty, and self restraint? The church has powerful answers to the questions about how we see the human body in a healthy manner. Do we play the comparison game? How do we teach students to deal with the body of others who are different? A different skin color, a funny appearance, the awkwardness of puberty, a lack of athletic prowess? Present A physical disability? Do we actively teach respect for others, no matter what their appearance or physical attributes? Do we tolerate bullying saying, “Oh, kids will be kids?”
Let me share a story with you about a student I knew. He had a terrible stutter, it was painful to watch him struggle to form a word, yet alone a sentence. There were many awkward pauses. After eighth grade graduation, his mother asked him about his grade school experience. She said, “It must have really been hard sometimes with people teasing you about your stutter.” He looked at her with surprise and said, “What do you mean? I have never been teased in school.”
It brings tears to my eyes to think about that story every time. We did something right there. All the way from kindergarten to eighth grade, his fellow student saw beyond his stutter and embraced him as a fellow child of God. I know that this has not been the experience for every student who’s graduated from my parish school or another Catholic school. But when you see it done right, it inspires you to try to make that the norm, rather than the exception. There was at least for a brief shining moment, a culture of respect and virtue that saw the body through the lens of grace.
Let’s speak now about the mind. This usually predominates the discussions of education, however, we must face facts. We don’t live in a very thoughtful society. Even in schools, we often concentrate on passing information from one person to another. This may be successful file transference, but it surely isn’t wisdom. Too often, We have opinions and prejudices, and we often let our emotions run amok, but we don’t sit quietly and think about the meaning of life. We often even avoid asking what God thinks about how we’re living our lives. Our frantic pace of life is one of the chief enemies of using the brains that God gave us. This explains a lot of the mess which we currently find ourselves. Screaming at one another, tearing down statues, riots in the streets. These are all signs of our society’s inability to respectfully discuss ideas and their consequences.
How far we have fallen is not an exaggeration to say that despite our technological advances, we have fallen into a new dark age. The very concept of civilization has been repudiated as merely another tool of oppression. Scholarship and reasoned dialogue are absolutely necessary ingredients for sustaining a healthy democracy. So what happens to a society where people repudiate the wisdom of everything that has gone before it? Did no one in those thousands of years have anything worth saying? The ancient Greek philosophers, the Hebrew prophets, the saints and scholars of Christendom? Have they really nothing to offer us?
The arrogance of today is staggering. Humans have always had questions, good questions. Why do we think that the only good answers worth considering are from the past few years? Saint Thomas Aquinas brought the wisdom of the ancient Greek philosophers to dialogue with sacred scripture and the theological reflections from the Fathers of the church. He made a masterful synthesis of what reason can contribute to our understanding of the world in harmony with the light to revelation. He and his teacher, Saint Albert The Great Patron of Scientists would not be amused by the alleged war between faith and reason. Usually expressed now as religion and science. This is an artificial and agenda driven conflict. It is opposed to us by the enlightenment and its modern day curators, the new atheists.
Hung up on Galileo’s trial are we? Try finding more recent matters like genetics or the origins of the universe. Augustinian friar, Gregor Mendel, is still in every science book, he is the father of genetics. Belgian priest, Father Georges Lemaître gave science, the “Big Bang” theory. Not just pious Catholics, but priests and scientists, they have transformed these fields of science.
Hostility? Not from us to science, but can we say the same from science to the church? Albert Einstein thought the matrix theory was interesting that his calculations were wrong and when Hubble’s research proved that Lemaître was right, we have a space telescope named after Hubble and Einstein is synonymous with genius. What about Lemaître? He’s downplayed as the greatest scientist, simply because he was a priest. Not very impartial and scientific is it?
We need to learn not to become captive to our own thoughts. We need to learn from others. We need to sharpen our thoughts by bringing them into contact with others’ thoughts. Now, we don’t all have to find a tutor or debate partner. We can pick up a good book, read. or better read and then discuss it with someone else. It’s more important for teachers than anyone else to keep a healthy habit of reading and learning. We try to form our children’s minds and hearts. We tell them not to be impatient or discouraged as this is a lifelong process, but if they don’t see us reading then they too will think that they can graduate from learning. We need to set them a good example.
There is always room for improvement in all of us. And if we don’t intentionally see good things for our minds, then we will passively let our minds be filled by the garbage around us in society. At best, much of what goes around us as mere distraction, superficiality and clutter. At worse, it is deadly poison, which undermines our spiritual life and separates us from God. Social media, YouTube, sports scores, blogosphere. There needs to be something more substantial to feed our minds.
Learning is certainly more than just reading books. It’s also paying attention to the people who God places in our lives and amongst those people, there’s rarely someone more important than a teacher. I would guess that each and every one of us this very moment could bring to mind a teacher we had, which changed our lives, who helped us to become who we are today. But sometimes it’s as simple as having just children listen to the stories from grandma and grandpa about the good ole days, or to listen to a neighbor describe a special project or their profession, shedding new light on something you didn’t know about. Maybe it’s looking at a painting and seeing the world from the artist’s perspective or listening to a great piece of music resonating with its passion.
Goethe insightfully wrote, “a man should hear a little music, read a little poetry and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.”
I try to encourage our students to learn to love learning. Life is a journey and we aren’t the first ones on the path. Listen to how others have experienced this adventure and learn from them. God created a marvelous world, have the curiosity to explore it. Allow yourself to nurture intellectual curiosity and a sense of profound wonder. If we never get excited about the things around us, then we aren’t paying attention. Be grateful for the beauty of God’s creation and all its wonders. The scripture tells us to love the Lord, our God, with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind. How could I love God with all my mind? If I don’t spend much time thinking?
The phrase “intellectual life” sounds very elitist, daunting. The fact is that it is far too important to be left to the intellectuals, especially if they often think too much about themselves and lack the humility to learn from the wisdom of the ages. Intellectual life is something that belongs to us all. Every human being was given an intellect by God. He wants us to use it for more than predicting which sports team will win or which way the stock market will go. How can you love God without first knowing him? Can you truly love a stranger or is it not rather getting to know someone that allows our love to grow from mere benevolence? Why did God create man?
The old Baltimore Catechism gives us answer, to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him. It starts with knowing. Now reading has a privileged placed in our learning. So what type of things should we read? Of course you expect me to say that you should read the Bible, you’re right. The worldwide popularity of the 365 day podcast to read the whole Bible in a year with Father Mike Schmitz from Duluth and our own Jeff Cavins shows there’s an immense hunger for the Word of God. Who better to listen and learn from than God himself?
But perhaps I’ll surprise you if I telling you that you should also make time to read fiction. Yes, be sure to have some good lives of Saints and spirituality books, but don’t forget that great literature is simply telling the story of a person’s struggles and victories. We get spiritual profit from the moral of a story. Even when that story is ostensibly, totally secular. Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Jane Austin, Willa Cather, Tolkien, they all have something to offer us that helps both our minds and our hearts. We need to eat more than “Golf Digest” and less trash like “50 Shades of Gray.” Too much trivia and soft porn turn intellects to mush.
Ladies, if the cover of a book features a shirtless dude and sold at the checkout counter, it’s not good for your intellectual life. Gentlemen, it’s time to man up intellectually and read something more than sports or handyman projects.
Part of the benefit of literature is not just the moral of the story, but learning to appreciate the imagination of the author. We’re spoiled into passivity by Hollywood, special effects, video games, look at the screen they will give it to you. No, look away and use your own imagination. Get the cobwebs off the brain and exercise it. You have insights and creativity that no one else can produce. What you absorb from others can actually give you as much delight as that which comes from within.
We need to live this so that we can both show and teach to our students. They need to know that the intellectual life is about more than a good GPA, an acceptance to a good college, it’s about being a good steward of the intellectual gifts which God has given us. It’s about seeking truth instead of accepting relativism.
Some of you may know the college professor and author Peter Kreeft, he’s been in Boston College for decades. He says that as he deals with freshmen, this is the most basic question they come with, is there is no thing as objective truth. You have your truth, I have my truth, it’s all relative. So he says to them, “Okay, well then, if you have blue eyes, you get an A. If you have blonde hair, you get a B, and everyone else flunks.”
And of course they immediately outcry from the students, “You can’t do that.” To which he replies, “Oh yes, I can. I’m the professor. I’m paid by the university to assign you a grade. I can do that.” “But that’s not fair.”
Ah, fair. There is something objective. There is right and wrong. There is truth. Sometimes you have to wait til it’s your ox that’s getting gored, but eventually we can all come around to see there is truth. And we need to share that with our students.
Now let’s turn to the most important part of the human person, the soul. This is the part that non-Catholic schools don’t even mention; it’s the part that too many Catholic schools only pay lip service. And on this day, dedicated to the sacred heart, sometimes we express the soul as the heart. And that great protagonist of Catholic education Sir John Henry Newman took as his motto, heart speaks to heart. Of course, he borrowed that from an earlier wise man of the faith, the great doctor of the church Francis de Sales. What does it mean to let God’s heart, His sacred heart speak to the hearts of our students?
First, we have to teach our students to defend the existence of the soul. The materialists tell them otherwise, but let’s be clear, scientifically we can analyze every molecule of someone’s DNA, but does it tell you why he or she finds one joke funny and not another? Does it tell you why you fall in love with someone but not the other person? It is the most unscientific thing in the world to deny the existence of the soul; it’s obvious to most people.
There’s something more to the universe than just flesh and blood. Some people try to dodge it with this: “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” This movement is at least intellectually honest enough to acknowledge the soul, but it fails to recognize that religion involves revelation. That is God telling us something about himself that we otherwise couldn’t know. There are certain things about God that we can deduce by reason, like the Greek philosophers did. But there is much that we need him to reveal to us. This spiritual but not religious person is left not just in ignorance of this revelation, but also imprisoned in his or her own ideas.
If there is one thing that we should all be able to agree on it’s that we are not God. My personal ideas aren’t gospel truth. I need something more transcendent and reliable than my own musings. I need to be stretched to the truth. The encounter with God is what stretches us. Prayer has to be more than saying your prayers. How do we move on the earthly level from being strangers to acquaintances, acquaintances to friends, friends to best friends, best friends to BFF’s as the kids say? We spend time with one another. And prayer is simply that an encounter with Jesus. We make space, we spend time with him. At the last supper, Jesus called his disciples friends. How do we lead our students to friendship with Christ? How do we model it for them, in our own lives?
For let’s be clear, the devil can quote the entire catechism paragraph by paragraph in Latin. And he knows it’s all true. He’s still in hell.
We need to give our students more than the right answers. What about the commandments are just rules? No, Jesus tells us that all of them can be summed up, love God and love your neighbor. What are the commandments? That’s what love looks like. How do we lead our students away from a rule-based thought about God, do this, don’t do that. It’s a game we play and if you mess up were gonna punish you, if you do the right thing you get rewarded. How do we lead them beyond that to a relationship with Jesus Christ in which we strive to be faithful to him? His love for us evokes love from us. His love out poured into our hearts overflows, that we may be a blessing to those around us, by loving them. And we need to lead our students to learn how to love the church.
Ah, the church. Sometimes the church looks simply like another human institution filled very flawed human beings. We’ve had more than our fair share of scandals in the past 20 years, to disabuse people of an easy love for the church, but the church is more than the sum of her parts. The church is a divine reality. The church is the privileged place of encounter with God. The church is God’s love poured out in the world for the sacraments. The church has important role to play in the formation of young people.
I started by telling you a sad story about my father and my uncle and some teaching sisters. Let me bring us towards a close with a very happy story about a little girl and some teaching sisters, a shout-out to the Dominicans.
Just before I got in the car to be immersed in a traffic jam this evening on my way here, I spoke with a person that the locals will know: Mary Jo Copeland. Mary Jo Copeland has been described as the Mother Teresa of Minnesota. President George W. Bush called her the face of compassionate conservatism. She serves meals to usually around a thousand people a day. She houses about 500 people, over 400 of whom are children. And she’s done this for 38 years and she’s done it without a penny of city, state or federal dollars. She has done it sometimes with not much support from the Catholic church, but she is deeply Catholic, and would tell you that everything she does is the fruit of prayer. Yes, she spends upwards of four hours a day in prayer before she shows up to open the doors to a homeless shelter.
She’s a layman, not a contemplative nun, but she started out like we all do — as a little child, a little child whose father went off to war as a soldier. He came back with what today would clearly be diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but back then, he was just called an alcoholic. He couldn’t deal with having seen the horrors of war. And so he drank himself to oblivion, but in his oblivion he physically abused his wife and he verbally abused his little daughter. And Mary Jo grew up in this home where her father would beat up her mother and scream at her, “You’re nothing. You’re never gonna be anything. You’re worthless.” And her mother was too traumatized to be able to help her daughter.
But Mary Jo went to a Catholic school and the Dominican sisters who taught her, saw this poor little girl coming in with her hair disheveled, dirty clothes, sometimes she smelled because she didn’t know how to parent herself. She didn’t know about all the things that we need our parents to teach us and keep us on that right path. But the sisters embraced her and told her of God’s love. The sisters taught her to pray, especially the rosary to turn to our lady. And when I told Mary Jo that I was coming to give this talk, she said, “Oh, I should be there with you.” She wanted to make sure I wasn’t gonna mess it up. Tell them Mary shows us how to say yes to God. Tell them. So I’m telling you that child’s pain was brought by those Catholic sisters, those teachers in a parish school was brought to the mystery of the cross. And that little girl experienced in the midst of her suffering an awareness of God’s love. And that little child’s pain has literally been turned into blessing for tens of thousands of people over these 38 years.
That’s the legacy of a couple Catholic teachers in a little parish school in south Minneapolis. That’s the impact we can have on our youth and they need it. They’re struggling. They’re suffering, they’re tempted. They need you to witness God’s love, the truth of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. And the beauty of a life of holiness.
Heaven is real. We teach our children when they’re very young, all about Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella. The same time we tell them stories about, Noah and Adam and Eve and Jesus, we need to help them sort it out. One is fairy tale and one is the most profound reality. The reality that remains when all this passes away. They need you.
Spring break each year finds me on a trip with a busload or sometimes two busloads of teenagers. I take the high school seniors often enough whenever possible, except for these past three years, is to Rome. They have a classical education. They get to experience the ancient empire of Rome, but they also can experience the heart of the church and the witness of the saints. When I come back, I have to restrain myself because the first person that asked, “Father, how was your vacation?” I don’t feel much charity towards that person.
So I asked them, “Do you take a busload of teenagers with you on vacation?” To which they’re, “No.” Well, neither do I. This year, we couldn’t go to Rome. So we took them to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, and I had forgotten the beauty of that shrine. And I had forgotten that Mexico City is at a higher altitude than Denver. And imagine in March, these pasty Minnesotans coming from the Arctic weather up here into the bright sunshine of Mexico at a high altitude where there’s not as much to shelter you from the sun’s rays. They were scorched on day one. So the rest of the trip, I went around the bus every row each morning, “Have you put on sunscreen?” “No.” “Stick out your hand,” squirt. “Have you put on sunscreen?” “Yeah.” “Where?” “We’ll I put like one dot, right here.” “Stick out your hand”, squirt. This was a ritual that was repeated in the evening. Have you put on aloe vera? “No.” “Stick out your hand,” squirt. “Have you put on aloe vera?” “Yeah, a little bit on my ear.” “What about the rest of you that’s peeling?” “No.” “Stick out your hand,” squirt.
Prevention and healing. These are two important dimensions of the life of a Catholic educator. We wanna prevent our children from getting harmed by the things in the world that are not of God, that don’t respect the dignity of the human person. Sometimes we can sometimes either free will or the conspiracy of the world around us doesn’t allow us to prevent that harm, but we can bring healing. We can bring God’s love into the brokenness.
I have a passion for art history and in Rome enjoy showing the students around that, or even here in town, taking the students to the art museum. And I love seeing how they come alive when they’re exposed to things of true beauty, but always at the end of the tour, I point out to them all these wonderful things. I say, “These masterpieces, these are the work of man, but each one of you, you’re the work of God. He wasn’t having a bad day when He created you. And there wasn’t an angel that bumped his elbow when he was putting the finishing touches on. You, each one of you is God’s masterpiece, and as such a work that far exceeds the beauty of Michelangelo or a da Vinci.”
This is how we need to teach our students to see themselves, to see themselves in a relationship with God, a relationship which is encompassing the entire human person, mind, body, and soul.