My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
We are celebrating Catholic Schools Week this year from Jan. 26 to Feb. 1. This year’s theme is “Catholic Schools: Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed.”
All schools seek for their students to learn, but Catholic schools aim for their students to learn the truth. In our relativistic world today, claims to knowing the truth are often met with skepticism by those who believe that you can have your truth and I can have my truth, but there is no such thing as “the truth.” However, Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). People of faith know this truth. Public schools cannot teach this. Catholic schools exist precisely to teach the truth about Jesus, so that students of Catholic schools will learn that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life, and that the path to eternal happiness with God the Father in heaven is through Jesus.
Catholic schools teach the truth about the sacredness of human life from conception until natural death, as well as the truth that marriage is between one man and one woman. This is not taught in public schools. In fact, last year Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a new law to take effect July 1, 2020, mandating that public schools must teach students about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in their history lessons and must use textbooks that include the roles of LGBT people, effectively holding them up as role models to be emulated. As Jesus said to the Pharisees when they challenged his teaching on marriage, one can almost hear Jesus asking Gov. Pritzker and the legislators who voted for this bill, “Have you not read [in the Book of Genesis] that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Matthew 19:4-6). Unlike public schools, we teach this truth in our Catholic schools.
The late Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, OMI, wrote a book in 2015 shortly before he died, entitled, A Godly Humanism. In it, he reflected on the relationship between truth and freedom. Cardinal George wrote, “Jesus promised that ‘The truth shall make you free,’ but where objective truth is regarded as the enemy of human liberty, many will abandon truth even though they ultimately forfeit liberty as a consequence, for we can’t be free if cut off from the truth of things. To live in falsehood is to live beneath human dignity, in the space where any emancipation is meaningless. That confronts us with the most culturally outrageous statement that can be made in our time, but it is true: The Church is where you go when you want to be free.”
That statement is perplexing to those who see the church simply as a place full of rules that restrict their freedom. However, such people confuse their personal autonomy to do as they please with the freedom with which we are endowed by our Creator to please God by what we do in accord with his divine plan. The Bible teaches us that God’s commandments are the path to happiness. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the people that God personally led them out of slavery in Egypt out of love for them, saying, “This is why you must now know, and fix in your heart, that the Lord is God in the heavens above and on earth below, and that there is no other. You must keep his statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you today, that you and your children after you may prosper, and that you may have long life on the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you forever” (Deut. 4:39-40). Our Lord’s commandments free us from slavery to sin, so that we may prosper and live forever in happiness with God.
Catholic schools also exist not only to teach children how to serve others, but why it is important that we serve others. As we have begun implementing the restored order for the Sacraments of Initiation in our diocese, moving the age of confirmation to around the third grade prior to receiving first holy Communion, some people have asked what will happen to the service projects that the confirmation candidates were often expected to do in eighth grade prior to being confirmed. My answer is that we can still have service projects for seventh- and eighth-graders as well as for high school students and adults, not as a hoop to jump through so that they can get confirmed, but because serving others is what disciples of Jesus do, and the whole point of religious education is to form people to be faithful and dedicated disciples of Jesus Christ who love God and serve each other, especially the poor and those who are most in need.
In our Catholic schools, we also teach our students to be leaders. The Catholic Church puts forth models of leaders in the lives of the saints to be imitated, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Clare, St. Dominic, St. Thomas Aquinas, Ss. Thomas More and John Fisher, St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Calcutta, as well as American examples of holiness and Christian service like St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, St. Katharine Drexel, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. John Neumann, and our own Venerable Father Augustine Tolton. Students in Catholic schools learn how to be leaders in the civic community as well as in the church.
Finally, our Catholic schools teach students how to succeed. A report released by the National Catholic Education Association found that Catholic high schools in the United States have a 99.1 percent graduation rate, compared to a 73.1 percent graduation rate at public schools. The report also found that 84.7 percent of Catholic high school graduates attend four-year colleges, compared to 44.1 percent of public high school graduates.
As we celebrate Catholic Schools Week, please continue to support our Catholic schools as places where students can learn, serve, lead and succeed.
May God give us this grace. Amen.