Vocation, Lessons in Life Born of Catholic Education

| January 20, 2011

By the Most Rev­erend Robert J. Cunningham

Bishop Robert J. Cunningham greets students from Notre Dame Junior/Senior High School following the opening of school Mass in September. Notre Dame celebrates its 50th anniversary this school year.

In 1990, the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II, issued a document entitled “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” which spoke of Catholic education, especially at the university level, as being born “from the heart of the Church.” Long before that document was written and published and on a much smaller scale, I knew that the Catholic elementary school I attendedwas a school with a heart. In fact, I realized that formany, the school was the heart of the parish. In the 1950s, which I know many will consider “ancient history,” much of a Catholic family’s life revolved around the parish and the school for its liturgical, educational and social needs.

By today’s standards, parents would be upset with the ambiance of my Catholic school education, an education which I consider a gift without comparison. When I was in elementary school, the sisters frequently would have 60 children in a classroom without any teacher aides or assistance. Classrooms were always overcrowded and some of them were created out of a less than desirable space. Despite obstacles and inconveniences, those teachers and those classrooms created a happy and productive learning environment which produced not only lifelong friendships but good citizens and active members of the Church.

Without fully realizing what was happening, students in Catholic schools were immersed in Catholic traditions. We marched all the way through the academic year in line with the Church’s liturgical year. To this day, the memories are vivid: daily Mass celebrated by the pastor before the start of each school day, rosary devotions in October, praying for the souls in Purgatory in November, preparing for Christ’s coming throughout Advent, Christmas pageants and parties, prayer for Christian unity in January, the blessing of throats in February, Stations of the Cross on the Friday afternoons of Lent, Holy Week Liturgies, the joys of the Easter Season, May Crowning and processions during Mary’s month, and devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in June. All of these provided invaluable lessons in the ways of our faith and enduring memories for a lifetime.

Academic subjects were surely taught, but in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways we learned the primary lesson: what it means to be a Christian, a Catholic, a follower of Jesus. While parents always retained the primary responsibility for the education of their children, the Catholic elementary school was a priceless resource and a staunch help to parents in this sacred task.

My boyhood pastor, Msgr. Charles A. Klauder, oversaw the entire parish complex and was present to students on a daily basis. He was at Mass each morning, on the playground at noon, handing out report cards in school, encouraging us to do better, suggesting what we might want to do with our lives, reminding us to help people in need in our own small way. My Catholic school education from first grade, through the subsequent years of high school, college, seminary and graduate school, has been a magnificent blessing. It gave me a firm foundation for life through the human knowledge and skills which it offered and the Catholic faith and practice which it nurtured.

Catholic education works best when it presents essential role models to young people. That is what my Catholic education did for me. I am profoundly grateful to have known and experienced the good example of many dedicated teachers.

It seems to me that it was on the first day of class that Sister Mary Cecilia began teaching lessons that would carry us along on the journey of life. There were some pictures that were quite common at the time in our classroom: guardian angels watching over children; Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden; George Washington and Thomas Jefferson reminding us of our country’s formation. And there was that first catechism lesson: “Who made you?” And the answer, “God made me.” “Why did God make you?” “God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this life and to be happy with Him forever in the next.” Simple lessons, designed for a 1st grade mind, but a strong foundation to remember in the course of our lives.

It was within the confines of my Catholic elementary school and under the direction of an outstanding pastor and teachers who were authentic witnesses to our Catholic faith that I learned the basic lessons of life. It was here, as well, that the seeds of my vocation were born. Once those basic lessons are learned and once we have discovered God’s plan for us, all other things fall into place.

Of course, there were other lessons learned and not all days were happy ones. There were the lessons for good order: be polite, no running in the hallway and the consequences for not promoting good order and respect. We were taught to read carefully the directions on a test, avoid split infinitives and dangling participles, pray and support the missions and sacrifice for the Catholic Charities Appeal. We might not always have had the words to express our faith, but we knew we were called to live a special life of love of God and neighbor. We did it within the enclosed environment of the Catholic school and parish and were convinced that we were the luckiest people in the world.

Today, I have many friends because of friendships that began in grade school. I remain in regular contact with them. I remember with affection the teachers in the school and the pastor and priests in the parish who served us and nurtured our gift of faith. What a blessing those years were!

Catholic school education has changed since I was in elementary school. Many of you reading this may not recognize the school and activities that I have described. But the significance of a Catholic school education and the enduring value of Catholic school teachers as role models, mentors and witnesses to our faith, have not changed. My prayer is that our students today will experience the joy and blessings of the excellent Catholic education that our schools provide. Changes in society and in parish life, population trends and financial challenges will undoubtedly lead to different school configurations and models. The timeless message of Catholic education, however, which springs from the very heart of the Church, will continue to form and mold young people today into disciples of Jesus, good citizens and active members of the Church.


Category: Catholic Identity, Featured

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