Diocesan Teachers Institute – September 27, 2021
Feast of Saint Vincent de Paul
I Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 9:35-38
Today’s feast of St. Vincent de Paul speaks quite poignantly to our time together for this year’s Diocesan Teachers Institute. While so much of his life, lived about 400 years ago, may seem to have little significance to our own, the primary focus of his ministry was more similar to what you do as teachers and administrators in Catholic schools that we might imagine or believe.
St. Vincent’s primary mission for himself and for the group of priests that he founded was twofold: the formation of clergy and service of the poor.
There’s a wonderful story told about St. Vincent when young men in training for ministry in his seminary complained to him that their prayer time was constantly being interrupted by the poor, who knocked on the doors of the seminary located in the heart of Paris looking for food and shelter. Listen to these words of St. Vincent in response to those concerns: “It is our duty to prefer the service of the poor to everything else and to offer such service as quickly as possible. If a needy person requires help during prayer time, do whatever has to be done with peace of mind. Offer the deed to God as your prayer. Do not become upset or feel guilty because you interrupted your prayer to serve the poor. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service.”
Essentially, St. Vincent was reminding his seminarians – and all of us – that our primary focus – as educators – as administrators – as clergy – as Christians – must be centered less upon our own needs and plans and far more upon the lives that God entrusts to us in the work that we’ve been given to do. For you, as Catholic educators, that care extends to fostering the well-being of the entire student who walks across the threshold of one of our schools.
Listen to the Mission Statement for our diocesan school system that clearly reminds us of that preeminent responsibility: We, the Catholic Schools of the Diocese of Scranton, are committed to educating students and their families in the Catholic faith. We provide a Catholic education that is spiritually sound and academically excellent. We strive to prepare our students to be faith-filled leaders and life-long leaders dedicated to serving the church and society.
Yes, our primary focus is the children who come to us seeking to learn. But they come with families who are also recipients of what we share. And what we share is not simply an educational experience that is academically excellent, but one that is rooted in the teachings of our faith. Indeed, it’s the faith dimension of what we teach – rooted in servant leadership that we both are called to model and instill in the lives given to our care – that sets us apart and gives us our unique Catholic identity. Without it, our mission, however noble, is lacking.
Some years before she died in 1997, Saint Theresa of Calcutta – Mother Theresa – the great modern-day apostle to the poor – shared these reflections. “There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”
So, so many of the children and families who come into our lives are poor. Some are materially poor. Far more are spiritually and emotionally poor. Yes, they come seeking an education. But many also come looking for meaning and purpose in their lives. Parents come with hopes for their children. And children come trusting in you to love and respect them and to give them a way forward in life.
Sisters and brothers, as you reflect upon the vision and mission of our Catholic school system, I hope you can begin to see something of yourselves and the unique role that you have and continue to play in the lives of our students, their families, our parishes and our communities.
Take a look at the last two academic years that we’ve experienced and the one that has just begun. More than ever before in your careers as educators, you have heroically responded to challenges and obstacles that none of us would have ever expected or imagined just three years ago. You’ve reassured frightened children and concerned families. You’ve expended countless more hours than ever before in order to teach and impart knowledge in the face of setbacks to the best of your plans. You’ve faced health concerns among your students and their families – and possibly even your own. You’ve been confronted by anger and bitterness and tried your best to respond with grace and dignity. You have prayed – likely more than ever before – for the safety and health of the countless numbers of lives that have been woven into your own. And like so many of us, you have been humble enough to admit that for as capable as we see ourselves to be, we are not in control of so much of life. No, we must hand that over to a power bigger than ourselves – the power we know as God.
In short, sisters and brothers, more than you realize, like Jesus in today’s gospel, your hearts, like never before, have been moved with pity for all the “troubled and abandoned” children and families who, in so many ways, have come to you “like sheep without a shepherd.”
Thank you for your willingness to embrace this unique moment in our history and for your dedication in serving the lives God has given to your care. May God’s grace enable you to be used as his instruments of peace. May you have the wisdom to turn to God for help in the midst of the mission that you’ve embraced. In so doing, may your light shine brightly for all to see, especially for every young person whose life encounters yours during these most challenging days.
God bless you and thank you!