As we conclude a week of celebration of Catholic Schools Week, I recall with great gratitude the profound impact that consecrated people have had on my life, and on the history of Catholic education in this country, in general. Although the numbers of religious serving in our schools are not what they once were, we must acknowledge that we would not be where we are without their many years of faithful service; and for that, we give thanks to God for the foundation they helped to build, a foundation from which you all benefit in more ways than you could ever fully appreciate.
One of the many figures that contributed to this foundation of Catholic education in our country is St. Katharine Drexel. She was born into one of the wealthiest families in the country. She and her sisters were raised with a solid Catholic formation, one that included many opportunities for serving the poor and underprivileged with the wealth that had been bestowed upon their family. While on a trip to Europe, she had the opportunity to be in Rome and was granted an audience with the pope at the time, Pope Leo XIII. She pleaded with the pope to send more priests to serve the needs of the American Indians. Pope Leo’s response was to ask her: “What about you? What are you going to do?” Those words changed Katharine’s life, because they reminded her that, in the end, every Christian man and woman, by virtue of baptism, has received a mission. Each one of us has to respond, as best we can, to the Lord’s call to build up his Body, the Church. Katharine went home and decided to dedicate her life to the service of the underprivileged as a religious sister. Having inherited a large sum of money following the death of her father, people were astonished at her decision to become a sister. One newspaper even printed the headline: “Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent—Gives Up Seven Million.”
An important part of the work to which St. Katharine dedicated herself was education. She wanted those who were unable to receive a Catholic education, either due to a lack of resources or unjust discrimination, to have the opportunity to do so. All of this happened because she was challenged to focus not on what others could do to make a difference, but what she could do in order to respond to the needs of her time.
How many young people in our parishes and schools have the same high ideals, generosity of spirit, and love for Christ and the Church! Do we challenge them? Do we make space for them and help them to do their part – to find ways of sharing their enthusiasm and gifts with our communities, above all in works of mercy and concern for others? Do we share our own joy and enthusiasm in serving the Lord? This is where we see the great value of our Catholic schools, because they are a special place where young people, are challenged to live up to those high ideals that are so common in their hearts. It is here that they are given a space in which to learn not just what to believe, but how to put it into practice by being of service to others. Unfortunately, the message of our Catholic faith and the guidance on ways in which we live it out in our daily lives is not the only message to which you are exposed. In the culture in which we live, we are challenged with other questions, which are often times at odds with our Catholic faith. Instead of asking, “What am I going to do,” our culture encourages us to ask: “What am I going to get?” We can get too wrapped up in ourselves, and we miss the chance to act like Christ to others.
We must emphasize God’s call to live stewardship and discipleship as a way of life. We are all stewards of God’s creation, entrusted to use the gifts He has given us for the benefit of others. He calls us to be His disciples, that is, people who intentionally decide to follow Jesus. Our Catholic schools are places where we are taught how to live in the way that Christ calls us to live. It is here, especially in interactions with one another, that they are challenged with that question: “What are you going to do?” Will you choose to act as Christians, or, will you choose to act as the culture encourages, by looking the other way – focusing just on what concerns us, leaving the care of others to somebody else?
We all have high ideals planted within our hearts, especially young people. This can be observed simply by asking children what they want to do when they grow up. It’s not uncommon to hear answers such as being a doctor, a firefighter, a police officer, a teacher, or a military officer. What is common among these professions? They all have to do with service to other people. Our Catholic faith constantly places before us those ideals of being of service to others. May our hearts always be open to following those ideals as the ones that lead to true happiness, true peace, and true fulfillment, as opposed to the worldly ideals which promise all of those things, but, in the end, always fail to live up to them. I offer you the same challenge that Pope Leo XIII made to Katherine Drexel: “What about you? What are you going to do?” What are you going to do to live your Catholic faith more intentionally today? What are you going to do when you see somebody else in need? Will you leave it for somebody else, or will you do something?