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A Beacon Of Light . . . How To Reform Catholic Education? With Christ

June 1, 2021 Frontpage No Comments

By FR. RICHARD D. BRETON JR.

Do you remember any of the outdoor games you played as a child? I do! My favorite game was hide and seek. We all know how it is played. A group of people will scatter and hide while another counts to 100, allowing the others time to find the perfect hiding place. After counting to the desired number, the counter begins searching out for the other players. After finding them all, the game is over and everyone had a good time.
It seems like the Church has been repeating this game, over and over again. The last several years have seen a steady decline in the numbers of the faithful participating in the faith. The faithful have found their perfect hiding places, and now it’s up to the Church to find them again. How do we find them? We do it through the teaching of the faith!
One of the greatest gifts the Church offers to the faithful is Catholic Education. The patrimony of Catholic Education is where the foundations of the faith are taught. Sadly, many have not had the opportunity to experience this gift of our faith, and so there has been a decline in the numbers of the faithful who truly understand it. This decline, I believe, can be traced back to our educational system, particularly the decline in Catholic Education. People no longer understand the faith as a result of decades of false watered-down teaching of the faith. Many have received a superficial emotionally charged “feel good faith” instead of the “foundation of true faith.” This type of teaching has led to our “dysfunction of faith.”
Five years ago, as I began my current parish assignment, we were considered one of the largest parishes, if not the largest, after the Cathedral. Each year our First Communion and Confirmation classes were considered one of the largest in the diocese. First Communion averaged about 46, while our Confirmation class easily had over 100 candidates. Since then, each of these sacramental years has dropped to below half. Interestingly enough, this year we had 27 for First Communion and only 28 for Confirmation. Why is this? What has or is causing this decline in those receiving the Sacraments of First Holy Communion and Confirmation?
In recent years Catholic schools have struggled to remain strong and, sadly, many prospective students have gone into hiding. Some areas of the country thrive, while others struggle to maintain a sustainable enrollment. Over the last few years, through research and personal experience, I have become increasingly concerned that unless we change our current attitude toward Catholic Education, it may be lost forever.
How do we begin to change the direction? It begins with a renewal of the way we are teaching the faith. In order to live the faith, we must know it first! The beginning to this task starts with an understanding of who the real “teacher” is.
“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ With these words of Christ, St. Bonaventure begins his explanation of the role Christ plays in being the one true teacher of all. St. Bonaventure explains that Christ is the principle and the cause of it all. He is the way, the truth, and the life and everything comes through Him. When we say that Christ is the way, we are saying that He is the principal agent of knowledge that comes to us through faith. This knowledge is twofold because it is acquired through divine Revelation and the authority of Christ.
Having discussed St. Bonaventure’s explanation of the Jesus as the Way, we now turn to the explanation of Jesus as the Truth. I am reminded of the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel. In it we hear about the Word of God being spoken and finally becoming flesh. This very act of God’s spoken word, and the fact that it became flesh, is Truth itself. As we journey here on Earth, we can use science to come to a certain understanding about something and we can believe because of the certitude that is made known through scientific proofs. When we discuss Truth as the word of God, it is irrefutable because God is Truth itself. If God spoke the word and the word became flesh, then Truth is the spoken word of God made manifest to man. As teachers of the faith, we are required to teach the truth, and so, we are required to teach Christ.
Now we will examine Christ as Life. If we say that as the Way, Christ is the principal agent of knowledge, and as Truth we recognize the word of God, then, now, we conclude that because of these we have life. Why? Because Christ as teacher, is the ultimate giver of life.
St. Bonaventure helps us understand that Christ, the Divine Teacher, leads us because He is the way, the truth, and the life. St. Augustine also reminds us in his On the Utility of Belief that what we understand, we owe to reason and what we believe, we owe to authority. It is through these two ways that we come to the knowledge of faith, but it is impossible for us to do so without Christ. If this is true, then we can see that Christ is the author of all Revelation by His coming into our minds and He is the author of all authority by His Incarnation.
Like Christ, the priest is a teacher and must remember that his knowledge is not his own, but a gift given to him by God. Teachers of the faith do not speak on their own, but they speak the Truth that is Christ. Finally, the priest is responsible for guiding everyone to eternal life. He must ensure that as he acts in the person of Christ, or in persona Christi. He is only the instrument used to assist God in His divine plan of salvation. Christ is the One True Teacher, and we are all His students. There have been many who have been instrumental in following the example of Christ the Teacher and the vision of St. Bonaventure. These models of Catholic Education are examples of how a priest is called to be a teacher.
One in particular comes to mind: His Eminence James Francis Cardinal Stafford, the former archbishop of Denver. On June 3, 1986, the then Bishop Stafford was appointed archbishop of Denver. Cardinal Stafford began his tenure very enthusiastically. Almost immediately after his installation, one of his main concerns was the increasing difficulties surrounding the diocesan Catholic schools. Cardinal Stafford’s first plan was to begin the process of eliminating the Catholic schools. In order to assist him in this endeavor, he established a commission to research their viability. While the commission was gathering data, Archbishop Stafford began visiting the Catholic schools to see firsthand what the problem was. After visiting all the Catholic schools within the archdiocese, the archbishop knew how he was going to proceed. His original desire to close the schools was beginning to slowly change. There was still hope!
In order to fulfill his responsibility as teacher, Cardinal Stafford wrote a pastoral letter called, In the Beginning, The Word, and it was published in three distinct parts. On March 25, 1995, the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, Cardinal Stafford published part one of his pastoral letter and entitled it, Signs of the Times. In part one of his pastoral letter, he explained the concerns he had regarding the Catholic schools of his archdiocese. He mentioned how the enrollment was decreasing and how each year it became more and more difficult to sustain Catholic Education within the Archdiocese of Denver. He also explained the shift in demographics as well as the struggles that the public school system was having. If the public schools were struggling, then, the Catholic schools needed to thrive even more to accomplish the goal of educating the children.
Cardinal Stafford faced a problem. How was he going to save Catholic Education in the Archdiocese of Denver? How was he going to fulfill his responsibility as teacher of his flock? In the end of part one of his pastoral letter, Cardinal Stafford reminded the people of the archdiocese that they were “standing on the threshold of a great period of renewal for Catholic Education in Northern Colorado.” He challenged them to examine their hearts as fellow teachers and witnesses of the faith. He reminded the faithful that the young people were watching.
On May 25, 1995, Cardinal Stafford published part two, called Living Stones. In this part he spoke about the responsibility of all of the faithful to be living stones. By this he meant that each person has a responsibility to encourage and promote Catholic Education. He wanted to re-establish the identity of the Catholic school. Through the years, the diocese had allowed the Catholic identity to fade. The modernism of the times had caused laxity. As society became less religious, unfortunately, so did the identity of the Catholic schools. Cardinal Stafford stated that they could not allow Catholic identity to falter. They had what no other school could offer, namely, Jesus Christ! They had Christ! They had the responsibility to dispense the faith by following the Lord’s command to teach. Even though the road might be difficult, the rewards would be worth it. In closing part two of his pastoral letter, Cardinal Stafford reminded the people of the archdiocese that they are like St. Francis. As St. Francis was chosen to “Rebuild My Church,” so too, they must work together to rebuild the confidence and the institution that is our Catholic Schools. “Brick by brick it can be done, and we must start now.”
On August 15, 1995, Cardinal Stafford would complete his three-part pastoral letter with The Way of the Pilgrim. In bringing his pastoral letter to a close, Cardinal Stafford would now challenge every Catholic within the Denver Archdiocese to support Catholic Education. How to do this? Quite simply, by living out their baptismal call as pilgrims on a journey. Cardinal Stafford reminded the faithful that together they must take their responsibility seriously and transform their schools into the best they can be. He reminded the faithful that sometimes a journey needs renewal in order to reach its destination. How fitting on that the Solemnity of the Assumption this pastoral letter was brought to a close. As Our Blessed Mother assumed her role in Heaven as Queen of Heaven and Earth, the Catholics of the Archdiocese of Denver were challenged to assume their responsibility as teachers of the faith to their young people.
Over the next few weeks, I will be continuing our discussion on the importance of Catholic Education. May Christ the Teacher, teach us the faith once again!

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