There is a popular quote attributed sometimes to the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (other times to Ralph Waldo Emerson) that states, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” In St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus makes a similar claim when he proclaims his educational mission, “I have come to set the world on fire and how I wish it were blazing already (Luke 12:49).” Jesus set the world on fire by proclaiming the Good News for all people. That’s the work of Catholic schools.
When discussing education at any level, it is common to hear the distinction between public and Catholic education expressed in terms of “values,” that Catholic education’s unique contribution is the presentation of “values.” While I understand the point, I think that distinction is simply too easy, too vague and too incomplete. Any true educational experience in any school is going to present “values.” Even when we specify “faith values” as the distinguishing characteristic, we are being too simple and incomplete.
Catholic education is not simply about values or even “faith values.” Catholic education is about a specific vision and an investment in that vision that comes from the Gospel and creates the specific values by which the Catholic school is known and identified. And that makes its values real and alive and applicable to life.
Catholic education is about passion; a vision and passion that views every young person in our Catholic schools, every parent, every teacher, every administrator, every staff member, every alumnus, and every benefactor as a partner in the Church’s mission to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in season and out of season, in the classroom and on the playground, on the computer screen, when school is in session and when it is not, in the school, in the home, in the neighborhood and community.
What Catholic schools do – like every other school – is to educate. The enduring effects of what we do, however, depend upon how we educate and that’s what makes us different, unique and worthy of support. Catholic schools are places “where faith and knowledge meet” but unless that meeting inspires, unless that meeting engages, unless that meeting “lights a fire,” unless that meeting changes lives, our Catholic schools are simply just “schools.”
To inspire, to engage, to light a fire, to change lives – these are the results of a Gospel vision and passion that occur within a committed partnership, a convinced and courageous partnership that educates in a way that is unambiguously and, therefore, distinctly faith-based and Catholic. Because of their Catholic identity, we have in our Catholic schools unambiguous and distinct opportunities to evangelize. That is where the vision and the passion come in. Evangelization, through Catholic education, pursues a vision and passion for excellence.
And what is the measure of that excellence and our success at achieving it? It is our children – the students who sit in the Catholic school classrooms, in the school buses, who play on the playgrounds and return home at the end of the day. To those entrusted with and involved in creating such excellence, I ask: are our Catholic school students’ lives different; better; inspired, and more engaged because they attend Catholic school? Do they learn how to pray? Are they on fire with Christ’s name and his teaching and his example and his Church? Do they realize that, because of his name, they have responsibilities to one another and for one another?
And it is not simply religion class or catechism that does that, although their importance should not be underestimated. We light a fire through social studies and math, through literature and language, through music and art, through computers and sports as well as through religion or, more accurately, because of religion! Everything that happens in the Catholic school is a call to be the very best one can be; not simply by getting by; not just by putting in another day.
Catholic schools recognize that their students are the future of our nation and our world. President Kennedy said it well: “Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future (UNICEF Appeal, July 25, 1963).” And we only have a few precious years to make them aware of that and to help them realize their potential. That, too, is the work of evangelization.
The excellence in education that we impart in the Catholic school is what makes the world better, safer, more just, more loving, more ethical, more peaceful … more holy. What could possibly be more important?
Most Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton