Below is the homily that I delivered to our archdiocesan Catholic elementary school teachers at the opening Mass for this school year:
A special welcome to all of you as you begin the school year! This is a sign to me (and I guess to you) that summer is over. I want to say a special word of welcome to those of you who will be teaching in one of our Catholic schools for the first time this year. I wonder if you will do us the favor of standing or at least waving your hands now, so that we can see where you are and acknowledge you. Thank you all very much.
The Ministry of Teaching
How very welcome you are to what is a wonderful ministry in our church. It is the ministry of teaching – very closely related to the ministry of preaching, and here we are celebrating Mass on the feast of Saint Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers. St. Dominic died in 1220, so he lived almost 800 years ago. Thank you for sharing in that ministry of preaching and teaching as you help shape the young men and women who are entrusted to your care. Thank you for that great gift.
What I thought I would do today is talk with you about three major areas that flow from the readings and the celebration. The first is a very simple: when you and I are teachers we are supposed to be ourselves. Second, we hear from the gospel that if we are good teachers, we give our whole selves to those we serve. Then finally, and this relates to the upcoming synod on the family, we need to remember that the students who come into our classrooms bring both the challenges and the gifts of their families. So let’s reflect upon those three areas as you prepare for a wonderful year.
First of all, be yourself. I think about St. Paul. I don’t know how well you heard that first reading, but he is writing the First Letter to the Corinthians and obviously, he had some rocky beginnings as he was preaching with the Corinthians. He stated that he began with fear and trembling. Now, I am sure that won’t happen to any of you who are teachers for the first time this year!
In April of 1972 (I was ordained in March of 1972), my classmates and I received a letter from the Bishop informing us of our assignment. One of my assignments was to be a part-time high school teacher for sophomores, and I was supposed to begin teaching in the fourth quarter. That is not a good recipe for success. Talk about entering into a situation that was vulnerable for one’s self-confidence. It was a disaster! After this experience, I thought, “I am not cut out for teaching.”
That summer, I went to a priest who had a very good reputation as a teacher. By the way, this is my time to remind all at this Mass to say a prayer of thanks for your mentors – those in your life who have provided good examples. I went to that mentor, and he gave me enough energy that I went back to teaching, and I’m still teaching. One of the things that he said to me was: “Never forget: don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. Be yourself and let the grace of Christ flow through you.” You did not each receive the same gifts, but the gift you have been given is meant to be a channel for God’s grace to flow into the lives of those students you serve. This is great advice as we begin the school year: to be ourselves but to let the grace of Christ bring out the best in ourselves.
As Leisa said in the introduction when she talked about the theme, we are followers of Jesus who witness. You know what a witness is. I watch these TV programs about lawyers and detectives and recall that, when one is called to be a witness, they’re supposed to simply tell what they saw and heard. So, it is that true witnesses for Christ are those who share their personal experience of Christ’s presence, not what someone else told them about that experience of Christ’s presence. St. Paul told us in that first reading that as imperfect as he was with a heart full of fear and trepidation, somehow St. Paul allowed God to work through him. He was able to be himself.
Give Your Whole Self as a Teacher
The second point comes from the gospel, and it is kind of frightening. Jesus said that if you are going to follow me, then no excuses: don’t turn back. As he said: “Set your hand to the plow and don’t keep looking back.” This involves that desire to give of ourselves totally. The teachers who’ve had such a great effect in our lives – think about the teachers in your own life – they were the ones who spent themselves entirely for their students, who really had a genuine sacrificial love for students. The word “witness” in Greek is the word “martyr,” and we associate the word “martyr” with sacrificial love. Our schools will be great and vibrant precisely because you have been given that gift of giving yourself totally to others. Your students, as they see the way you love them, will learn how to love others.
Good teachers support the beauty and joy of family life
The third point has to do with the family, and to illustrate this point, I brought with me a little book. Sometimes when we talk about the family we often talk about the challenges that young people bring, and this is true; you know that better than I do. Many of our young people have great challenges within their families, and their families sometimes struggle. It is not always easy, and a good teacher can actually have a great impact. What we should never forget, however, is that students also brings the great beauty and joy that only their families can give them.
So I brought this book. It was given to me on Christmas of 1958. You do the math; I was in the middle of seventh grade. My teachers had no idea that my sister, Rose, (my oldest sister) would give me a book entitled St. Dominic and the Rosary. My teachers had no idea about the effect that reading this book, given to me by a family member, would have in transforming my life. I can still remember reading it. It said that St. Dominic wanted to be an athlete for Christ. He wanted to have a life filled with adventure, and as I was reading, I thought, “Gee, that’s not a bad idea!” I think the seed of a vocation took shape and form through that book.
I am still in contact with my grade school principal. She is getting older, as I am. Every four months or so, I get a note from her, and I always write back to tell her how grateful I am for what she did. In many ways, however, I never realized that my family contributed mightily to that education. So often you and I might think about the families of our students through the lens of what the students bring into the classroom. Of course, they bring challenges, but this year, let’s not forget to look for the beauty and the joy that families bring and how families shape the hearts of the young men and women whom you will serve.
Deep thanks for your service as teachers
We give glory and thanks to God because you have been called to such a special role in being witnesses as teachers of our faith. Thank you for your life and for your selfless service to the church and to the students you serve. Thanks also for being yourself and for giving yourself totally to your students. God bless you!