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A Beacon Of Light… Catholic Education Began With Christ

June 8, 2021 Frontpage No Comments

By FR. RICHARD D. BRETON JR.

(Editor’s Note: Fr. Richard D. Breton Jr. is a priest of the Diocese of Norwich, Conn. He received his BA in religious studies and his MA in dogmatic theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn.)

  • + + Last week we began our series dedicated to Catholic Education. This week we will briefly look at the history of the establishment of Catholic Education.
    It is a very usual trait of the human being to remember the last words, the last wish, the last glance, the last will of someone who has passed from this world to the next. Christ has given us that opportunity in relation to Himself.
    In the last chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, He gives us His last will: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20).
    In other words, He entrusted them to explain what He had taught them. His last command was a command to teach. Jesus was and is a teacher. He said, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and rightly so, for that is what I am” (John 13:13). Mark recounts the story of the request of James and John to sit at the right hand of Jesus in His glory. They said to Him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” (Mark 10:35). In the post Resurrection walk to Emmaus, He taught His companions, explaining the Scriptures to them (Luke 24:27). Over 60 times in the New Testament, Jesus is called teacher.
    Pope St. John Paul II in his apostolic exhortation Catechesi Tradendae (October 16, 1979) writes of Christ as Teacher. He defines what Christ asks of us when He asks us to teach:
    “I am not forgetful that the majesty of Christ the Teacher and the unique consistency and persuasiveness of His teaching can only be explained by the fact that His words, His parables, and His arguments are never separable from His life and His very being.
    “Accordingly, the whole of Christ’s life was a continual teaching: His silences, His miracles, His gestures, His prayer, His love for people, His special affection for the little and the poor, His acceptance of the total sacrifice on the cross for the redemption of the world, and His Resurrection are the actualization of His word and the fulfillment of Revelation. Hence for Christians the crucifix is one of the most sublime and popular images of Christ the Teacher.”
    Jesus was and is a teacher. Other words come more quickly to mind — Lord, Savior, Master, and Redeemer. But teacher was the word the multitudes used. This was how the disciples referred to Him. Jesus Himself used the term when He said, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and rightly so, for that is what I am” (John 13:13). When Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, he said, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God” (John 3:2).
    In following the example of the Lord, the Church has a responsibility to teach the faith, in season and out of season. This is accomplished, more fully, through Catholic Education.
    Throughout the history of an organized religion, there have to be guidelines to follow regarding the certain aspect of the beliefs. Within the realm of the Catholic Church there are many rules and doctrines that help to form an understanding of our beliefs. When discussing the responsibility of teaching the faith, there are certain moments in the history of the Church when it was necessary to instruct the clergy in their responsibility.
    At the First Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1829 asserted: “We judge it absolutely necessary that schools be established in which the young may be taught the principles of faith and morality, while being instructed in letters.”
    The bishops of the nation made their judgment a matter of law in 1884 at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore: “We decide and decree that near each church, where it does not exist, a parish school is to be erected within two years of the promulgation of this Council.”
    In order to fulfill this newly established canonical law, there needed to be someone who would enact this decree. This responsibility fell to Archbishop John J. Hughes.
    A native of Ireland, an immigrant gardener, Archbishop Hughes fought for the Catholic Education of adults and children, especially for his fellow countrymen at the time of the Irish potato famine. Fleeing poverty and persecution his family, came to the United States when John was 20. His childhood dream of becoming a priest was realized beginning with a letter to the rector of Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., drafted and signed by the great American educator, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
    Though he was known to be unsystematic, disorganized, unable to keep his checkbook balanced, he was very accomplished and was driven to educate the Irish immigrant. He is known for saying, “We shall have to build the schoolhouse first and the church afterward. In our age the question of education is the question of the church.”
    Hughes’ schools emphasized not just the three R’s but also a faith-based code of personal conduct that demanded respect for teachers and fellow students. Parents had to attend meetings with teachers and do repair work and cleaning in the schools. By the end of his tenure, the original boundaries of Hughes’ diocese contained over 100 schools. Not content to build just primary and secondary schools, he founded or helped to found Fordham University and Manhattan, Manhattanville, and Mount St. Vincent Colleges.

Zealous For Souls

Another pioneer of Catholic Education was St. John Neumann. St. John Neumann was born in Prachatitz, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), on March 28, 1811. He studied theology in the seminary of Budweis. Zealous for the missionary life and to lead souls to Christ, he decided to leave his homeland to dedicate himself to the European immigrants in America, who were deprived of spiritual support.
St. John Neumann was ordained a priest by the bishop of New York in June 1836 and gave himself to the pastoral care of people in the vast area around Niagara Falls.
Wanting to live in a religious community that corresponded more to his missionary vocation, in January 1842 he entered the Redemptorists.
A tireless missionary, Neumann busied himself in particular with the German immigrants, first in Baltimore, then in Pittsburgh.
Having filled the role of vice-provincial superior of the Redemptorists from 1846-1849, he became the parish priest of St. Alphonsus Church in Baltimore. In 1852, at the age of 41, he was named bishop of Philadelphia.
Neumann had a strong effect on the religious life of the United States by founding Catholic schools and promoting devotion to the Eucharist.
He founded a new religious institute — the Third Order of St. Francis of Glen Riddle. The School Sisters of Notre Dame likewise regard Neumann as their secondary founder, their “Father in America.”
In just seven years, he built 89 churches, as well as several hospitals and orphanages. As a bishop, Neumann was untiring in visiting his vast diocese.
On January 5, 1860, at the age of 49, he died suddenly of a heart attack on a Philadelphia street. Neumann was beatified during the Second Vatican Council on October 13, 1963, and was canonized on June 19, 1977. In the homily on the occasion of Neumann’s canonization, Pope Paul VI summarized the activity of the new saint: “He was close to the sick, he loved to be with the poor, he was a friend of sinners, and now he is the glory of all immigrants.”
Through the centuries, the Church has taught through magisterial documents the great importance for educating our children, not only in reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also to show how to live the Catholic faith.
In next week’s column, we will look at some of the Church’s documents on education and see how they have established for us the roadmap we must follow in educating our children.

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