Back to School

Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

Later this month, the annual ritual of going back to school will unfold in families across our community and throughout our country. For many, it will mark an educational milestone as parents will walk hand-in-hand with their small children on their first day of school, or join other parents in sharing carpool responsibilities as their children begin high school, or help move their older children into their dorm rooms at college.

The first day for our Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Washington on August 31 will fittingly be preceded one week earlier by an opening Mass for the school year, which I will celebrate for Catholic school teachers, principals and other staff members at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. That Mass will include a commissioning ceremony for these educators that recognizes their call to teach students to love and serve as Jesus did. That vital work will unfold each and every day for the nearly 27,000 students attending our 95 schools, including early childhood centers, elementary and high schools.

In my 2008 pastoral letter on Catholic education, I noted that our Catholic schools and parish religious education programs “bring something to those we teach that no one else can. We share the story of Jesus.” That is a story that our world – and especially our children – need to experience, especially today in a world where social, cultural and political forces seek to minimize or even bleach out religion. The Catholic identity of our schools is one of the pillars of our Catholic educational outreach. In addition to crucifixes and statues of Mary displayed in classrooms, students learn about their Catholic faith and they are challenged to live and share it every day.

To help prepare our community for Pope Francis’ historic visit to Washington, students will be encouraged to participate in the “Walk with Francis Pledge” being coordinated by Catholic Charities. By praying, reading more about their faith and sharing it with others, and by serving the poor and taking action on behalf of those in need, our students will be able to reflect the archdiocesan theme of the papal visit: “Share the Joy, Walk with Francis.”

At the Mass of Canonization for Saint Junípero Serra, the congregation will include many students from The Catholic University of America and other young adults studying and working in the Washington area. Their witness of faith, and the works of service that they undertake in honor of the Holy Father’s visit, will allow them also to truly “Share the Joy, Walk with Francis” as they offer our Church and our country great hope for the future.

This Mass elevating the United States’ newest saint offers us a reminder that the walk of holiness, and our journey to heaven, is one undertaken by earlier saints whom we should emulate, like two special patrons of Catholic education – Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and Saint John Neumann. Both are profiled prominently in the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults.

In her life and work, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton demonstrated our human quest for God. A widow and mother of five children, she founded the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph, the first order of religious women in America. The schools she began in Maryland in the early decades of the 1800s, which provided free education for the poor and accepted tuition from those who could afford it, laid the basis for the Catholic school system in the United States. Mother Seton died in 1821 and was canonized in 1975, becoming our country’s first native-born saint.

As a priest in the Niagara region of New York, and then as the bishop of Philadelphia, Saint John Neumann demonstrated the importance of devotion to Christ and spreading the Gospel. A native of Bohemia, which is now in the Czech Republic, he served as Philadelphia’s bishop from 1852 until his death eight years later, but in that time, he increased the number of parish schools there from two to nearly 100, and he is credited with founding the first diocesan Catholic school system in the United States. He was canonized in 1977.

This school year, we will all have a special opportunity to “Walk with Francis” as we continue to walk in the footsteps of Catholic saints who demonstrated the importance of living, teaching and sharing the faith. This is the work that happens every day in our Catholic schools and parish religious education programs and is a manifestation of the kingdom in our midst.