This homily was delivered as part of the twentieth anniversary of The Atonement Academy at Our Lady of the Atonement Church in San Antonio, Texas, on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 3 May 2015, by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D.
In 1993 during the weekend of celebrations for this parish’s tenth anniversary, I stood in this church and observed that many of you were asking what more you could or should be doing as a parish community to become even “more Catholic.” I challenged you: “Open a Catholic school.” I used the rest of that homily to explain why the Church considers Catholic education to be so important and what I thought a new Catholic school could do for the life of your then-fledgling Anglican Use parish. True pioneers, real men and women of faith, under the dauntless leadership of Father Phillips, and following the example of great American saints like Mother Cabrini, Mother Seton and Bishop John Neumann, you determined to walk by faith, not by sight. Like the Psalmist with whom we sang today, you took as your guiding principle: “Posterity shall serve him; men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn that he has wrought it.” You were not content to love merely “in word or speech but in deed and in truth.” Put bluntly, you put your money where your mouth was, having “confidence in God” that you would “receive from him whatever [you] ask.”
Now that we have come to the twentieth anniversary of The Atonement Academy, let’s take this opportunity to review the goal of a Catholic school and to renew our communal commitment.
“The days have come. . . in which the school is more necessary than the church.” Does that statement startle you? Who could say that? The answer is that it did indeed startle people the first time it was said – and over 150 years ago – by Archbishop John J. Hughes of New York. In many ways, it was his insight and foresight that launched the Catholic community in America on an endeavor unparalleled in the history of the Church. Archbishop Hughes felt that if he lost the children, there would be little hope for the future of the Church in this country.
The rationale behind this stringent injunction was explained clearly by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical, Divini Illius Magistri (On the Christian Education of Youth): “The so-called ‘neutral’school from which religion is excluded, is contrary to the fundamental principles of education. Such a school moreover cannot exist in practice; it is bound to become irreligious.” While this kind of thinking has been characterized as a “fortress” or “siege mentality,” few observers can doubt that the American so-called public school is a potent example of a “neutral” school system becoming “irreligious” de facto and, some would add, de jure.
Now, pragmatic people will want to ask, "Has it been worth all the blood, sweat and tears? Has this school really accomplished anything?" If The Atonement Academy is no better and no worse than the average Catholic school in the United States, here's what you should have begun to see, according to all the sociological data available: Its graduates will have picked up the basics of the Catholic Faith in a God-centered environment; they are more committed to the Catholic Church, demonstrated in better church attendance, more generous financial giving to their parish, greater involvement in the life and mission of the Catholic Church. Not only do they excel in the three r's, but in that all-important fourth "r" – religion – because they were taught the lesson St. John never tired of repeating – that we are truly "children of God."
Unfortunately, most youngsters in our society are not taught that they have the inestimable dignity of being the adopted children of their Heavenly Father; that they are the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ; that they, therefore, have both a natural and a supernatural dignity. No, most other schools in our country do not and, even more sadly, cannot by law teach about how man is made in the image and likeness of God or about God's commandments which contain within them the blueprint for human happiness and fulfillment. Those schools do not challenge children to greatness and to lives of virtue; they merely provide them with the techniques of so-called "safe sex." Well, it seems to me that every penny spent by every parent and by this parish community has been a marvelous investment in human potential which seeks the good – indeed, the ultimate Good which is God Himself. And so, I ask you, "Can you conceive of a better way to have expended so much time and energy?" I can't.
Pope Paul VI's bicentennial message to the Church in the United States contained praise for the American Catholic school system and an encouragement to continue the tradition: “The strength of the Church in America (is) in the Catholic schools.” Nor was it sheer coincidence that the two Americans Paul VI canonized in observance of our bicentennial, Bishop John Neumann of Philadelphia and Mother Seton of New York, were prime movers in the parochial school effort.
Pope John Paul II's esteem for the American Catholic school system was demonstrated with great regularity. Just months after his installation, he sent a videotaped message to Catholic educators gathered in Philadelphia for the annual convention of the National Catholic Educational Association, in which he said that he hoped to give “a new impulse to Catholic education throughout the vast area of the United States of America.” He went on to say: “Yes, the Catholic school must remain a privileged means of Catholic education in America. . . , worthy of the greatest sacrifices.” Later that year during his first pastoral visit to the States, with 20,000 Catholic school students at Madison Square Garden, he seized the opportunity “to tell (them) why the Church considers it so important and expends so much energy in order to provide . . . millions of young people with a Catholic education.” It is for no other purpose, he said, than to “communicate Christ” to them. He likewise referred to the Catholic school as “the heart of the Church.”
Pope Benedict XVI, at the Catholic University of America in 2008, weighed in on this topic as well:
Dear friends, the history of this nation includes many examples of the Church's commitment in this regard. The Catholic community here has in fact made education one of its highest priorities. This undertaking has not come without great sacrifice. Towering figures, like Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and other founders and foundresses, with great tenacity and foresight, laid the foundations of what is today a remarkable network of parochial schools contributing to the spiritual well-being of the Church and the nation. . . . Countless dedicated Religious Sisters, Brothers, and Priests together with selfless parents have, through Catholic schools, helped generations of immigrants to rise from poverty and take their place in mainstream society.
This sacrifice continues today. It is an outstanding apostolate of hope, seeking to address the material, intellectual and spiritual needs of over three million children and students. It also provides a highly commendable opportunity for the entire Catholic community to contribute generously to the financial needs of our institutions. Their long-term sustainability must be assured. Indeed, everything possible must be done, in cooperation with the wider community, to ensure that they are accessible to people of all social and economic strata. No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.
How do Catholic schools “nurture the soul of a nation”? It seems to me that believers must be convinced – and then must convince everyone else – that the Fathers of Vatican II got it right when they declared in Gaudium et Spes: “Without the Creator, the creature vanishes” (n. 36). History supports that assertion. Just look at the bloodshed of every godless movement of modernity from the French Revolution to the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish Civil War to the murderous campaigns of the Nazis and Communists. Clearly, “without the Creator, the creature vanishes.” And an education devoid of God is an anti-education.
Nor has Pope Francis been silent on the importance of Catholic education. Indeed, as a Jesuit and former high school teacher, he has repeatedly highlighted this issue. Just last week, he applauded the bishops of Benin for their establishment of Catholic schools and encouraged them to continue along that path.
Has The Atonement Academy had its failures? Probably. Are all its alumni loyal sons and daughters of the Church? Probably not. But even our Divine Savior Himself did not bat 1000 when it came to selecting faithful apostles. The test of Atonement is not whether or not every graduate has accepted the Gospel of Christ and lived it, but whether or not the saving message of Christ has been presented in all its truth, in its fullness, in its surpassing beauty. After all, if we had no failures, perhaps we would be engaged in brain-washing more than evangelization.
Anniversaries, my friends, are joyous times of remembering, of rekindling the first fervor and enthusiasm, of re-committing to the original ideals. And I hope everyone will do that this Sunday. But anniversaries are also times to assume new challenges for the future. In that spirit, permit me to offer a few challenges to all connected in any way with The Atonement Academy since this school is no longer an infant that needs to be nurtured but is moving toward full maturity; therefore, everyone has a right to expect some concrete, positive results.
To the graduates: If you had the gift of faith cultivated at Atonement, have you lived that faith fully? Are you committed to Sunday Mass? Are you a strong witness to Christ, His Gospel and His Church in the daily circumstances of your life? Are you a credit to The Atonement Academy and to the holy Catholic Church which that school represents? Having had the great privilege of an education grounded in Jesus Christ, are you any different from the pagans around whom and among whom you live and work and study? Last Sunday, the Church Universal observed World Day of Prayer for Vocations, so I must also ask, "When will the first graduate enter the seminary or the convent?" After all, one of the strongest indicators of a healthy Catholic school has always been the priestly and religious vocations it produces. What a proud day it will be for Atonement when its first alumnus returns to celebrate Mass for the student body and the whole parish.
To parents: If you have not availed yourself of the opportunity for the Catholic education of your children, let me remind you – in the name of Christ's Church – how important the Church considers this to be. As we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council, listen to what the bishops had to say in this regard: "Catholic parents are reminded of their duty to send their children to Catholic schools. . . " (Gravissimum Educationis, n. 8). And all the Popes since then, and the Code of Canon Law, and the American bishops in numerous pastoral statements have never ceased to teach this truth.
To the loyal and generous parishioners: Please realize the tremendous possibilities for good which exist in your school – and it is “your” school. Always deem it an honor to be part of that project; never see it as a burden. Encourage as many parents as possible to send their children to this school; do all you can to keep this school within the financial reach of every parent and child. Remember: Catholic education is not the primary responsibility of parents who happen to have their children in a Catholic school; it is the concern of every devout Catholic. Once more, the Council Fathers can help us understand this as we read: "The sacred Synod earnestly exhorts the pastors of the Church and all the faithful to spare no sacrifice in helping Catholic schools to become increasingly effective, especially in caring for the poor, for those who are without the help and affection of family, and those who do not have the Faith" (GE, n. 9).
To the teachers: The overwhelming majority of faculty and administration here have been lay people; never allow that to intimidate you into thinking that you are second-class teachers. Recall that Mother Seton was a laywoman – not a nun – when she began the glorious parochial school movement in our land. But do be sure that you appreciate in the deepest sense the tremendous confidence placed in you by the Church and by parents in confiding the formation of Catholic youth to you. Therefore, know the Catholic Faith well and completely, and see it as your most sacred trust to impart that Faith and to live it in such a way that your students have the very finest teacher of Catholic doctrine and morality, setting for yourself no less a model than Christ the Divine Teacher Himself. The personal and financial sacrifices you have made – and will continue to make – show that you have learned your lessons at the feet of Christ the Teacher; the Catholic community owes you a debt of gratitude, which debt shall be credited to your glory in the Kingdom.
Today, then, let us thank Almighty God for the gift of faith which gave birth to an institution which has been "communicat[ing] Christ" to young believers for twenty years. I have always counted it a rare privilege to have been part of beginning a new Catholic school; it is an equally great privilege to have been able to share my reflections with you today as we have looked into the past and gazed into the future – all with one goal: To put flesh and bones on the desire of Our Lord that “you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” May Christ Jesus grant that every young Christian trained in this school of His, having been “pruned because of the word” spoken here, will always remain in Christ “the true vine,” “bear much fruit and become [His] disciples.”
Of all the Anglican Use parishes in our nation, bar none, Our Lady of the Atonement is the most successful. I submit that the principal reason for its success has been the commitment of your pastor and you good people to your parish school. With Saint Paul, I happily assert: “I am confident that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Ph 1:6).