“I’m sorry for my sins. I missed Mass last Sunday.” Every priest hearing children’s confessions has heard this, especially when, as here, the class was sacramentally well prepared.

I, too, have often heard this, and on occasions when it had not snowed on recent Sundays and school was just in mid-session. One might be inclined to inquire why the absence? Then would come the heart-tugging reply: “My mommy and daddy won’t take me!”

Who knows why not? Are this fourth-grader’s parents both Catholic even? Are they separated? Is one or both of them divorced or feeling unwelcome by other parishioners? Is it something deeper — a terrible experience with a priest or a nun? Or is it just the world as it is, with its skepticism about institutions, including organized religion, which has distanced or soured them? Who knows?

One thing I do know, a child is so fortunate even to be attending a Catholic school. Parents, whatever the present state of their faith journey, deserve a lot of credit, too. Despite their failings and struggles, they are making the tremendous sacrifice of paying their child’s tuition. They trust the school to be a good family of faith and academic excellence. They might have opted for public school, where no catechesis or sacramental formation can be offered. Yet they, whether they fully realize or not, are giving their child a chance to be formed into not only a good Catholic, but also an excellent, intelligent citizen of their state and country.

Why mention good citizenship in the context of Catholic education? Well, because surveys consistently find those formed in Catholic schools rate at the top of students who are free thinkers, team players, more involved in service and outreach to the most vulnerable, more likely to be free of prejudice and active in community life as they mature. Catholic schools form good citizens.

Speak to most any Catholic school student around our diocese. Ask them questions about their faith and their viewpoint on issues. You will rarely get only lockstep answers. Sometimes you might even detect what sounds doctrinally not quite precise. Even Catholic scholars have strayed or crossed lines and had to be corrected. What you won’t find are closed minds.

Like most Catholics, our young people want to learn more about our faith and to follow it. They struggle with its teachings sometimes, but more likely with its moral precepts that, by the way are grounded in good science and natural law, though not without biblical roots. Science is the best friend of Catholic moral teaching throughout the human spectrum, from embryology through gerontology. Catholics understand that a human being is not only an individual with a unique genetic stamp and biological ecosystem, but as a being always in relationship, capable also of mutual love, which is what reveals person to be created in the image and likeness of a loving, triune God. As such, we are always a work in progress, as the Holy Spirit grows and recreates in us God’s life.

I have heard few Catholics in formation quibble about a fourth person of the Blessed Trinity or questioning the two natures of Christ. However, in a world in which we are bombarded daily with images of sexual and relationship ambiguities, abortion on demand and euthanasia marketed as desirable “choices” that somehow promise freedom, and the routine bullying on campuses of students who do not kowtow to prevailing popular and politically correct opinion, no wonder our students must struggle to discern the truth, embrace it and proclaim it freely. It takes diligence and courage!

I am proud to stand in support of our Catholic schools and our students who are growing every day in their faith and a love for learning in the very challenging world they live in. I compliment their parents for supporting them and working with our wonderful teachers and support staffs. I pray during this Catholic Schools Week that our Catholic school families will draw closer together not only in their pursuit of academic excellence, but also in their worship of the Lord of all truth, in word and sacrament. In the end, who unites us is Jesus Christ himself, the Way, the Truth and the Life, who is our ultimate destiny. Knowing him is the sure way to real freedom, based on truth, which brings happiness and holiness.

A college student once asked Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, “What is the difference between African Catholics and American Catholics?” He replied, “Americans learn about God and get smart. Africans worship God and get changed.” His answer might sting a little, but Cardinal Turkson should know. He did his seminary studies in our Diocese of Albany and always remains our good friend. So, this is something for us to ponder during Catholic Schools Week

The goal of all Catholic education is not just to acquire academic skills and knowledge — and earn good marks — nor even to know things about Jesus. He is more than a teacher and not just a personality, but a real person to know, love and, as a divine Person, to worship. In fact, he needs to become the center of our life, or else our Catholic education has not fulfilled its true mission.

Like Cardinal Turkson says, it is not just about getting smart, but to be changed, becoming holy, to feed not just the mind, but the heart and soul as well. No better way than to receive him into our hearts, in prayer, word and sacrament. The bond between Church and school will ensure that saving connection remains strong. It is a goal aimed at the freedom and fulfillment of the whole person, a true child of God.

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