“Celebrate Catholic Schools Week” in the U.S. begins this year on Sunday, January 26, and ends February 1, 2020. The theme of this week of celebration and reflection is “Catholic Schools: Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed.”
It would be impossible to overestimate the influence that Catholic schools have had on the Catholic faith, and indeed on all of civic society, in the U.S. Catholic schools have produced generations of leaders and nurtured the faith in ways incalculable.
When and where was the first U.S. Catholic school established? According to the National Catholic Education Association’s Web site, it’s hard to pinpoint, but clear that U.S. Catholic education has deep roots. The Franciscans opened a school in what is now St. Augustine, Florida, in 1606. Not too much later, and farther north, Jesuits were educating Indian children, including our new American saint, Kateri Tekakwitha. Women like Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, who helped to found the Catholic school system in America, and Saint Katherine Drexel, who labored for the education of Black Americans, were among the thousands of religious women who gave their lives to “raise the standard” in Catholic education. The influx of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coupled with a decidedly antiCatholic bias present in some public schools of the time, propelled the enormous growth of Catholic schools in America’s great cities and small towns.
Entire generations of U.S. Catholics are graduates of the Church’s school system. Times have changed. Many dioceses face consolidations and closures of schools; public schools have become inclusive, and the network of religious women who made Catholic schools so affordable has been largely replaced by a dedicated pool of lay men and women.
Yet, Catholic education continues to flourish and continually seeks new ways to enhance our Catholic faith through education. Today, 7,000 Catholic schools continue to serve the Church and nation, and produce America’s leaders and faithful Catholics. As Catholic stewards, we are grateful for the gift to our Church and nation of Catholic schools, and we pledge our continued support and prayer.
Saint John the Almsgiver earned the title “almsgiver” because of his passion for social justice and his stewardship of the poor and oppressed. Born at Amathus, Cyprus, around 560, the son of the governor of Cyprus, he was wealthy and of noble lineage. His wife and children died before John reached the age of 50.
A devout Christian, John sought to live a life of simplicity and in the spirit of poverty despite his wealth. He used his riches and position to help the poor. Despite being a layman, the Church at Alexandria petitioned to have John appointed bishop. He was consecrated Patriarch of Alexandria in 610. He pledged himself to practice “charity without limits” and placed several thousand needy persons under his personal, pastoral care. He always referred to the poor as his “lords and masters,” because of what he called “their mighty influence at the Court of the Most High.” He divided the church treasury’s gold among hospitals and monasteries, and worked to establish an economic redistribution system whereby poor people received adequate money and means to support themselves. Refugees from neighboring territories were welcomed with open arms. John was a reformer who established new hospitals and increased the number of churches in Alexandria from seven to seventy. As bishop, John developed a reputation for kindness. Twice weekly, he made himself available to anyone, rich or destitute, who wished to speak with him. People lined up and waited patiently for their turn. When asked about his passionate concern for the poor, it is said that John often recounted a youthful dream. In it, a beautiful young woman told him that she was “charity.” She told him: “I am the oldest daughter of the King. If you are devoted to me, I will lead you to Jesus. No one is as influential with him as I am. Remember, it was for me that he became a baby to redeem the world.” John used this story to persuade the rich to be generous. When the Persians sacked Jerusalem in 614, John sent food and money to support the Christian refugees. Eventually, the Persians took over Alexandria, and John himself was forced to flee to his native Cyprus. John died peacefully on November 11, 619. His feast day is January 23.
“Money must serve, not rule!”
This is how Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, put the emphasis on one of seven major themes in his pastoral letter, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). The pontiff’s letter, formally referred to as an “apostolic exhortation,” devotes itself to the subject of the new evangelization, and shares ideas about how the church can reform itself in order to embrace a renewed sense of mission.
One of our Holy Father’s urgent concerns is how the poor of the world are being treated. In his letter he states emphatically that he loves everyone, both rich and poor, but that he is obliged in the name of Jesus Christ to remind everyone that the rich have a responsibility “… to help, respect and promote the poor” (par. 58).
Pope Francis is especially concerned about the growing global economic inequity and challenges world political and financial leaders to use our economic systems in a way that favors human beings: Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? (par. 52).
The pope is insistent: God calls us to make a committed response to the poor in a way that transcends the logic of the marketplace. In his Christmas message, Pope Francis urged us to “place ourselves at the service of the poor, make ourselves small and poor with them.” He does not condemn capitalism, nor does he favor a Marxist view of economics. He is challenging each of us to follow Christ and be good stewards of his gospel message which includes loving God and neighbor, especially the poor, the prisoners, the sick, and the outcast; all whom Jesus makes reference to in his teaching on the final judgment of the nations in the Gospel of Matthew (25:31-46).
It is a call to action Pope Francis urges upon us as we move into this New Year.
Another year is upon us! Still in the context of our beautiful Christmas season, many of us will answer the questions: “What will be new in my growth as a follower of Jesus? What tangible changes of heart and habit will I strive for in 2020?” Perhaps we might even ask those questions as a parish community. As Christian stewards, you and I could come up with some definite hopes and dreams for our personal and overall parish conversions, especially in light of the encouragement of Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation: The Joy of the Gospel. In that document we are called over and over again to shine as the light and love of Jesus in the world.
Pope Paul VI also dealt with the demeanor of the faithful in his decree: On the Mission Activity of the Church. In this document, which also deals with evangelization, he writes: The presence of the Christian faithful in these human groups should be inspired by that charity with which God has loved us, and with which He still wills that we should love one another. (cf. 1 John 4-:11) Christian charity truly extends to all, without distinction of race, creed or social condition: it looks for neither gain nor gratitude. (#12)
The word charity seems like such a simple term, but it generates a powerful outcome. It addresses all areas of the life of a Christian steward including time for our relationship with God, each other, the environment and human life. Charity asks us to consider our attitudes towards others, the use of our talents and of course our treasure. Saint Teresa of Calcutta was someone who placed the word within her heart and let it drive her life as a disciple of Jesus.
Perhaps you will make a list of New Year’s resolutions for 2020. Perhaps you will set some simple goals as parish leaders this year. As you sit down to reflect, consider using the beautiful word charity as a guide and see how your resolutions might look different from prior years. Consider how it might help you imitate the life of Jesus more fully. Have a happy and charitable 2020!
by Mary Ann Otto, Minister for Missionary Discipleship, St. Joseph and St. Mary Parishes, Appleton, Wisconsin