The Setting for the Formation of the Heart, The Anchor, January 23, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
January 23, 2009

Three years ago this Sunday, Pope Benedict published his first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, about the love of God that we are called to receive and to share. In it he described that all Christians need to receive a “formation of the heart,” a two-step training that occurs through an “encounter with God in Christ that awakens their love and opens their spirit to others.”

This first step of the process, the Pope says, begins with a living experience of God’s love incarnate in Jesus Christ. “Love of neighbor … consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter that has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend.”

Once people begin to look at others with the eyes of Christ, once they start to reciprocate his love for others and share his love for others, it becomes possible for them to love others with the same self-sacrificial love with which Jesus loves them. “As a result,” the pontiff continues, “love of neighbor will no longer be for them a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith that becomes active through love.”

This is the second step in the formation of the heart. The “freely-bestowed experience of love from within,” Benedict says, “by its very nature must then be shared with others.” Once hearts have been moved and conquered by Christ’s love, the love of Christ becomes the criterion of their existence and activity and “urges them on” (cf. 2 Cor 5:14) in the consciousness that “in Christ, God has given himself for us, even unto death, [and this] must inspire us to live no longer for ourselves but for him, and, with him, for others.”

I was reminded of these insights of the Holy Father about the authentically Christian training in love as I read hundreds of Catholic Schools Week essays during the past week. The theme for the 2009 Catholic schools week, which begins on Sunday, is “Catholic Schools Celebrate Service.” We translated that theme into three age-specific interrogatives for the Anchor essay contest. The youngest students we asked to write on “What do I do for others that pleases Jesus?” Middle school students were solicited to respond to, “How has my Catholic School inspired me to imitate Christ in serving others?” High schoolers were given the question, “Serving others: What did Jesus do? What will I do?”

While I have always enjoyed reading the essays of the crème de la crème of our Catholic schools and viewing the inestimably important enterprise of Catholic education anew each year through their eyes, the responses to this year’s contest moved me deeply. They were a resplendent testimony to how profoundly today’s generation of students, formed in our Catholic parishes and schools, have internalized Jesus’ call faithfully to love others as Jesus has first loved us.

As I was growing up, many Catholic educational institutions and parishes framed their service programs in a way detached from faith in Christ and in the Church he founded. Some Catholic colleges and universities, for example, would laud their service programs as the only tangible evidence needed of their institution’s “Catholic values,” as if service-week programs in Appalachia or South America were sufficient exoneration for their failure to affirm and put in practice some of the more difficult teachings of the Gospel in other areas. The push for “service” often became a diversion from a striving for “fidelity” to God in all aspects of the faith. Because of the disconnect between service and full fidelity to Christ’s teachings, moreover, it was unsurprising that the connection to Christ in such programs began to dissipate so much that many of them became indistinguishable from secular social service outreaches.

I remember once giving a day of recollection to students in such a Catholic service program. I asked them, “How does the good work that you’re doing bring you closer to Christ?” The normally garrulous students fell silent. Even with sympathetic prodding, they were unable to answer what I thought was a rather easy question. For them, what they were doing was not really flowing from the Lord or toward him. Their good fruits were detached from a truly life-giving faithful tree. They lacked — I think for no fault of their own — an authentically Christian formation of the heart.

What was so refreshing for me in reading this year’s Catholic Schools Week essays was that students today are in fact receiving that two-step training in Christ-like love in their Catholic schools. Even in the younger grades, the students give evidence that they are impelled not merely an unselfish desire to do good for others but by the love and example of Christ. They cited how Christ washed the feet of his disciples during the Last Supper and left that as an example for us, so that we might likewise not hesitate to do the “dirty work” for others. They pointed out that Jesus came, not to be served, but to serve. They noted that Jesus did not say, “Love me as I have loved you,” but, “Love one another as I have loved you.” They observed that when Jesus asked Simon Peter three times if he loved him, and three times Peter said he did, Jesus did not stop there, with requited love. Jesus wanted, rather, that Peter out of love for him would “feed his sheep” and “tend his lambs.” Christ’s example, as these insights show, moves students to seek to care for those in need.

The essayists also described how their Catholic schools have what could be best termed a community of Christian charity, in which sacrifices for others are so commonplace as to become contagious. Several called explicit attention to the sacrifices their principals and teachers make in patiently helping them after school through difficulties of one sort or another; the huge monetary renunciations these same staff make just to work in a Catholic school; the legions of volunteers who come to the school to work for nothing; the huge sacrifices their parents make in working extra jobs or forfeiting vacations in order to be able to pay for their tuition. Students raised in such a culture receive a formation of the heart not just by instruction but by osmosis.

Thus it should really not come as a surprise that the students in Catholic schools take such initiative in leading food, toy and clothing drives; set up buddy programs to help new students joyfully integrate in their scholastic family; go to visit and sing for nursing home residents; and raise money for sick classmates or their relatives.

Catholic school students do not just do service, begrudgingly, as a part of their curriculum. They celebrate it, as the theme for this week announces, because it is an expression of the overflowing love for God that has been poured into their hearts (Rom 5:5). The whole Church rightly celebrates this liturgy of loving service just like she celebrates the liturgy of the Word and the sacramental liturgies. “As a community, the Church must practice love,” Pope Benedict wrote three years ago. “Love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to her as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel. The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.”

Young people can learn the “three r’s” and many other subjects in various educational institutions, but there are few settings in which they can receive, along with excellent instruction, the true formation of the heart. That’s what sets Catholic schools apart.