Fr. Roger J. Landry
Bishop Connolly High School, Fall River, MA
Catholics Schools Week Mass
Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas
January 28, 2002
Wis 7:7-10,15-16; Ps118:9-14; Mt23:8-12
1) The Theme of Catholic Schools Week 2002, which you can find on posters, fliers and Catholic newspapers, is “Catholic Schools: Where Faith and Knowledge Meet.” Faith and Knowledge. Catholic schools are the place where, inspired by the Catholic faith, students and teachers pursue knowledge and where students and teachers, inspired by what they’ve learned, grow in faith. Pope John Paul II three years ago wrote a beautiful document on faith and reason, which starts with an unforgettable image that should inspire every Catholic school. “Faith and reason” — what we might call faith and knowledge — “are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” Sometimes people can think that faith and knowledge are in competition with each other. But the Catholic vision is completely different. Faith and knowledge are meant not just to meet, but to fall in love, and to grow together. Both faith and knowledge are meant to bring us to the Truth, to help us to discover that the Truth has a name (Jesus), and to help us to discover in that truth the deepest truths about ourselves. That’s what Catholic education is all about.
2) In good Catholic schools, this spiral of knowledge and faith occurs, where faith leads to the pursuit of truth in knowledge and where knowledge leads us to God and to a greater response to God in faith. A school wouldn’t really be Catholic if there were not a hunger, a real desire, for knowledge. God is the source of all truth and we search for Him. Catholic schools should be marked by a real desire for academic excellence, but in a way different from elite prep schools. They might search for academic excellence for several reasons — pride in a school’s reputation, money, a desire to learn for its own sake — but we search for this excellence out of love for God. But a school would not be Catholic unless the Catholic faith, both its content and our response in faith, did not impact everything we do here. What distinguishes a Catholic school from a public or a secular private school is not just that we have an extra subject in our curriculum, religion. It’s not just that there’s a chaplain assigned, a prayer read each morning, and a few overtly-religious events each month. A Catholic school is one in which faith and knowledge meet everywhere.
a) In math and science courses, students here are meant to learn more than just about theorems and formulas, but, through order of the natural world come to know Him who created it. My faith was tremendously deepened during my four-and-a-half years of research at Massachusetts General Hospital. Each time I operated on an animal in research and made an incison in the stomach to open up the organs, I was more deeply impressed by the order there, which could not happen by chance. Just as a watch cannot put itself together randomly, neither could the universe, neither could animals, neither could human beings. Science, knowledge, brings us to God and leads us to an act of faith in Him.
b) In languages, we learn at a Catholic school not just vocabulary words, grammatical structures and cultural items, but we have a particular motivation, that of bringing us into communication with those brothers and sisters of ours throughout the world, to be able to listen to them, to be able to learn from them, to be able to teach and share with them. These languages also make us capable of communicating more deeply with God.
c) In history, we learn not just about facts and persons from the past, but we are called to see in the shadow of history the Lord of history, working through culture and human events.
d) In health and athletics, we learn not just about staying fit and how to win, but about treasuring the gift of the body and its health, about teamwork, about overcoming obstacles. It’s no surprise that St. Paul so often uses athletic images to describe the Catholic faith, because athletics, properly understood, is a great help to and image of the response of faith.
e) In religion, we learn not just facts about Jesus and the Catholic faith, but we are called to get to know Jesus personally, to have a personal relationship with Him through faith.
3) We see loving union of knowledge and faith in the life of the saint we celebrate today, who is the patron saint of all Catholic schools as well as the patron saint of students. St. Thomas was born in 1225 and died 50 years later. He was probably the greatest student in the history of the Church and perhaps, after Christ, the greatest teacher. In his more than 100 large volumes of material, he was constantly merging human reason (what we’d call knowledge) and faith. He said that both have their source in God and, therefore, since God can never contradict himself, real knowledge and true faith can never contradict each other. For him, the point of knowledge was not just so that others would consider you smart. It wasn’t to win the 13th century version of a game of Jeopardy! It was meant to lead to God. For him, both knowledge and faith led to worship. It lead him to pour out his heart in acts of love to God. You already know St. Thomas. We sing his words each First Friday, when we sing the “Godhead here in hiding” and the “Down in adoration falling.” At the end of his life, he had a mystical experience that got him to stop writing. He was praying in front of the Crucifix, which he said was the most important “book” he ever had to learn from, and was so moved by some vision of the Lord that he said that everything he had written up until that point was “like straw” compared to what he had just learned. Knowledge and faith and, like the wings of a dove, lead him to God and he then rested in God.
4) Faith and reason, meet and marry at a good Catholic school. Sometimes this tremendous gift can be taken for granted. I know that most of the students here at Connolly have never gone to public schools and hence sometimes don’t know the gift that a Catholic education really is in comparison to others. What’s greatest about a Catholic school like Connolly is not just its small size, where you can get to know your teachers and fellow students well and they can get to know you. What’s greatest about Connolly is not just that its safer than public schools, or friendlier. What’s greatest about Catholic schools like Connolly is that here we can educate the whole person, all of you. In public schools today, faith and knowledge cannot meet as it can here. There’s a whole trend in public and secular private education to remove God from the picture, to get God out of schools, to get faith out, to get prayer out, to get God-centered morality out. I was reading an article about a school last week that was in a heap of controversy over whether they could teach the students that what happened on September 11 was evil. Evil presumes, the critics were saying, that there really is right and wrong, good and evil, and a moral order in the universe coming from God. Imagine! Here at BCHS we try to educate the whole person, not just pass on some knowledge. Unlike other schools, BCHS does not exist just to help you score well on the SATs, get into college and find a job. Connolly exists to help you pass the final exam of life and get into heaven and find your vocation. And there is a final exam in life and you do have a vocation. Institutionally, public schools today don’t prepare you for it and that’s a tremendous negligence. It would be similar to the teachers here not preparing you for the SATs or Achievements or public school teachers not preparing you for the MCAS. Different religions might prepare you in different ways for that final exam but to ignore that there is one, to ignore that there is a God, is terribly negligent.
5) And it has tremendous consequences. There is a purpose to knowledge and when that purpose is not acknowledge, there can be great damage. Knowledge without faith, without a just morality inspired by faith, can do great damage. This point was brought back to me last week when I was on pilgrimage to Washington, DC with 13 others from Connolly for the pro-life March. Prior to the March, we again visited the Holocaust museum as we did last year. At one point, we encountered the meeting which led to the decision to bring about the “final solution,” the extermination of Jews from Europe. The board noted that most of the people at that meeting, who decided to wipe the Jews from the face of Europe, had their doctorates. I read last year a quotation from a Holocaust survivor which is worth re-reading, because it helps us to see just what a gift we have in Catholic education, and the real danger that is brewing in public schools. It was written to teachers, but students can get a lot out of it as well: “Dear Teacher,” Chaim Ginott wrote, “I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness: Gas chambers built by learned engineers; children poisoned by Educated physicians; infants killed by trained nurses; women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates. So I am suspicious of education. My request is: help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.”
6) To make you more human, to make you fully human. That’s the purpose of Catholic education, through deepening your knowledge and deepening your faith. But the most critical element in all of this is you. You have a great faculty here, many of whom have made huge sacrifices to be here to teach you. They’ve got so much to pass on, but you’ve got to be open to receive it. We could have a faculty of Nobel prize winners and a staff of Mother Teresas here, but if you didn’t apply yourself, you would not graduate that fully human person. Some things will affect you by osmosis, but not most. The rest requires an effort. You have to open yourself up to that knowledge, study, learn, put it into practice. There’s the story of an Italian professor met by another who said, “I met one of your students” and then gave the name. The professor responded, “That person was in my class. He heard all of my lectures. But that person was not my student.” The student didn’t put anything learned in that class into practice. Just as with knowledge, you’ve got to open yourself up to faith in God, to faith in the one Church He sent his Son Jesus to found, and to practice it. It’s a choice you have to make, it’s a choice that not even God will force you to make, but it’s the most important choice you’ll ever make.
7) For this place to succeed, knowledge and faith needs to meet in you. For this place to succeed, knowledge and faith need to be like two wings, raising you up into contact with God. For this place to succeed you need to graduate not just smart and nice, but wise and holy. St. Thomas Aquinas responded to the gift and opportunity of knowledge and faith, rose into deep love with God here in this life, and now exists in God eternally. This school exists to help each one of us — and that includes you — to do the same thing.