Among my happiest memories are grammar school years in Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal parish in Ridgewood (Queens). Church, school, home and play — the people they included — were somehow all related. TV (black and white) and music (45 rpms), picnics and sports were all in the mix, but not allowed to supplant Mass or family meals. Malls were virtually unknown. Except for delis and bakeries, stores closed Sundays.

Right after first Holy Communion, I could not wait to become an altar server. I wanted to learn the Latin. Psalm 42, recited at the beginning of Mass, was real for me: Et introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam (“I will go up to the altar of God, to God who gives joy to my youth”). This is a Semitic way of saying God is always new. When we rise to God’s voice, we are refreshed and filled with joy. Then, typically, I took all this for granted. Now, with each passing year, I only become more awed. 

Religion may be listed as a school subject, but our Catholic faith is not a class, a course to be taken, passed and graduated from, as happens too often after Confirmation, which Pope Francis once called “the sacrament of goodbye.” It is a way of life. Not that I was always fully aware, but I know now, and can affirm without doubt, it is the only way to real life, the life that lasts. That life comes from Jesus Christ, not the self, not from who we say we are or what we do. As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis observes, “The deepest meaning of Christian discipleship is not to work for Jesus but to be with Jesus.”

I want every child to learn and experience that, to have the foundation to that life-transforming journey: to know and love Jesus and the joy his love brings us. That is why I am so passionate about Catholic education. That is what — or who — it is all about. All we learn and do is centered on Jesus.
Religion, as in “religions of the world” or “comparative religious studies” featured in college curricula, may be labeled one course among others, like physics or art history. But our Catholic faith is so much more dynamic and exciting. It is vibrant, living testimony, not just a database or a catalogue of events. It is more than a subject of intellectual, philosophical or historical interest. And not only so much more, but of an entirely other order: the meaning and purpose of life itself. And here’s why.

Jesus, the center of our life, is not a subject!  He is the Lord of all Creation, the Lord of all life. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6), he said. A divine Person — God’s Word Incarnate — he has his own reality. Not only would it be inappropriate, but rather demeaning, even insulting, to treat him as anything less than a best friend. In fact, he himself calls us friends (Jn 15:15).

He wants us not just to know of him, but to love him who loves us passionately. He thirsts for us (cf. Jn 4:4-42 – the encounter with the woman at the well). Whoever accepts that this friendship is what our faith is all about need never be lonely. For it is a divine invitation to intimacy. And God never lies. It’s personal, not merely academic. No more than a happy marriage is ensured by following online dating sites or reading relationship self-help manuals will studying “about” our faith give us that faith or make it relevant to our lives. And if is not relevant to our lives, really, what good is it?

We may “go” to Mass on Sundays, march for life and other social justice causes, do the works of mercy and those “service hours” for sacraments prep. If our faith is just an endless series of projects, a to-do checklist, a course to be graded, we are missing the point. It will not feed our soul-hunger. If it is only what WE do, it will die. We will die.

Our real need is for Jesus himself, the Bread of Life (Jn 6:35), and nothing less, his personal presence, not just signs, banners and rituals. And while we are on that note, as Flannery O’Connor put it, “if the Eucharist is just a symbol, the hell with it.” I might add that changing the atmospherics — the language, the lighting, the incense flow or even the musical ambience — will not in themselves enhance that presence. I cannot imagine the saints who watch over us and long for us all to be in their company would temper these admonitions. For the Eucharist is their main connection with us on earth: the Real Presence of the Lord whom they behold in the face, the same Jesus present at Mass. For there is only one Jesus.

Mother Teresa, near the end of her earthly sojourn, was deeply concerned over her sisters who might only see Jesus as a subject, or a model to follow. She writes this in a heartfelt letter to her beloved community — and to us — in words worth pondering:

“I worry some of you still have not really met Jesus — one to one — you and Jesus alone. We may spend time in chapel — but have you seen with the eyes of your soul how He looks at you with love? Do you really know the living Jesus — not from books but from being with Him in your heart? Have you heard the loving words He speaks to you? Ask for the grace, He is longing to give it. Until you can hear Jesus in the silence of your own heart, you will not be able to hear Him saying ‘I thirst’ in the hearts of the poor. Never give up this daily intimate contact with Jesus as the real living person — not just the idea. How can we last even one day without hearing Jesus say ‘I love you’ — impossible. Our soul needs that as much as the body needs to breathe the air. If not, prayer is dead — meditation only thinking. Jesus wants you each to hear Him — speaking in the silence of your heart. Be careful of all that can block that personal contact with the living Jesus.

“The Devil may try to use the hurts of life, and sometimes our own mistakes — to make you feel it is impossible that Jesus really loves you, is really cleaving to you. This is a danger for all of us. And so sad, because it is completely opposite of what Jesus is really wanting, waiting to tell you. Not only that He loves you, but even more — He longs for you. He misses you when you don’t come close. He thirsts for you. He loves you always, even when you don’t feel worthy. When not accepted by others, even by yourself sometimes — He is the one who always accepts you. My children, you don’t have to be different for Jesus to love you. Only believe — you are precious to Him. Bring all you are suffering to His feet — only open your heart to be loved by Him as you are. He will do the rest.”

I write now with similar urgency to share my hope and passion as we prepare for Catholic Schools Week. As disciples of Christ, may all of us be committed to our common mission: to let every child entrusted to us know the love of Jesus Christ. All that we do and what we live for is to proclaim the Gospel, the good news of the Incarnation of God: Jesus Christ among us, loving us.

How often we say of our Catholic schools and religious ed programs that we educate the whole person, not just the mind and body. How often we say we are more than a schoolhouse with a cross on top. If our witness to the Gospel, to Jesus himself in our lives, is not joyful, is not transforming lives — our lives — we might as well replace the cross with a weathervane for all it’s worth, cut our losses, sell our buildings, return the grants and tuition dollars, or be held accountable for false advertising. Without Jesus in all we do, we lose our moorings and sink into the quicksand of the world’s confusion.

Catholic Education true to its name must not shrink from its mission, intimidated by a collapsing secularized culture, fearful of being branded “too” Catholic. Especially when our young people are starving spiritually, craving for truth and authenticity. They want to see and feel the joy of the Gospel in our lives, that Jesus is alive in our hearts. Catechists, Catholic School teachers, pastors of souls and parents united in mission must be, first and foremost, evangelizers, living witnesses to Jesus Christ. For all our shortcomings, the Lord will be our strength, buoying us up, as he did Peter when he turned his eyes from the Lord and began to sink in the water (Mt 14:22-33).

Mother Teresa reminds us all that the joy of the Gospel is not about trying harder or placing more burdens on ourselves or others. It comes from letting go — as true love does — and trusting in Jesus, giving him his rightful place on the throne of our hearts.

Life is so much better letting Jesus do the heavy lifting. Children get this. They make friends easily because they don’t bear the weight of so much baggage. When they fall, they have less to fear for they are closer to the soil — which is what “humility” means. No doubt that is why Jesus invites us to become as children in our trust in him (cf. Mt. 18:3). Is this humble trust too much to ask of us — parents and teachers, mentors and clergy — who are missioned to lead our children to Jesus? If we don’t, who will?