(Editor's note: This is the first of two columns by Bishop Scharfenberger on Catholic education in celebration of national Catholic Schools Week, which will be celebrated Jan. 28-Feb. 3. Part II will appear in next week's issue.)

"To be in Christ means being a completely new creature. Everything of the old is gone, now everything is made anew" (2 Cor 5:17).

Without Catholic education, I would probably not be here, writing this. Given the unsettled Vietnam War era I grew up in, I might not even be alive.

In retrospect, the more I consider with gratitude the paths I took and the choices I made, no clearer channel of God's providential guidance emerges than through my Catholic education. In fact, Catholic education is what made me who I am. It shaped my character. It led me to my calling. It formed my life.

One of the first things I learned was that God made me out of love and put me into this world for a purpose: to know, love and serve God on Earth and to have a future with God that would not end in the world as I knew it.

That seed of truth, watered by baptism into Jesus Christ, was nurtured into an abiding, life-changing, ever-relevant faith throughout my Catholic education. It has become so much of what I am that I cannot be myself without sharing that faith as my life's mission.

To be candid, I did not realize what I had learned - and am still learning -- until many years after my formal Catholic schooling. Education often continues after school! The temptations of materialism, addictions, spiritual wanderings and political-ideological fads besiege every generation.

I had no personal exemptions, but one deep and profoundly personal foundation rescued me from any such dead end. That "one foundation" is, of course, Jesus Christ our Lord, the heart of Catholic education.

Catholic education -- if it be real Catholic education - always keeps as its focal point this central truth that grounds all truth and learning. It was, in my experience, more than a crucifix on the roof or even in every room, exemplary religious women, praying at the start of class, the famous Catholic-school discipline or the catechism that set me on this foundation.

All of these beckoned to something -- someone -- greater than us and our comfort zones; someone who is the ground of our being. It was by encountering Him to whom they led me that I received my truly Catholic formation.

My Catholic formation, as you might have inferred, progressed with the magnificent bonus of attending a parish school. When I speak of my Catholic formation, I mean much more than that I dusted a chair in a Catholic-school classroom with all its familiar props and personnel.

"Catholic," literally, means "universal" or "holistic:" all-embracing, all-encompassing. By its nature, our Catholic faith is in a redeemer who yearns to save everyone by bringing all persons to their full development as human beings.

This also is the mission of truly Catholic education, within and parallel to the Catholic-school system. I will have more to say about that in my next column as we approach the celebration of national Catholic Schools Week.

As I neared graduation from Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal School in Ridgewood, N.Y., I started to realize God might be calling me to be a priest, not an airline pilot (my childhood career dream). Because of my Catholic formation, I did not imagine this had anything to do with becoming a member of a privileged class, a secret club or some odd species of humans.

The world may deem priests such; but, for me (and, I think, most priests), we see our calling as a way of being fully men, fully loving and fully human. Every vocation -- and each of us has one -- is, first and foremost, a call to be the human being God created me to be. How I become that human being is a lifelong project that includes what vocational path the Lord might want to lead me along.

I found my calling by encountering God's work in and through others. I knew real priests. They were good men, good human beings. Our teachers, both lay and religious, clearly admired and welcomed them into our classrooms. We saw their love for the Mass and the divine office, which they often said while pacing the parish grounds. They spent time with us in the schoolyard and at parish activities. I wanted to be like these men and do what they did.

Catholic education had prepared me to see God's presence in relationships, through other human beings. My teachers and mentors were more than employees or career models. They were disciples of Jesus Christ and, therefore, witnesses to the Gospel. They showed me, by word and example, to appreciate every person's uniqueness: not so much a "diversity" that sets us apart, but a complementary "differentness" that unites by bringing us into harmony, without any one of us losing our own character.

This is a logical consequence of being formed "in the image and likeness" of a trinitarian God. Our unique personhood and our communities each naturally reflect who God, our creator, really is. There's no need for identity politics, because dignity and equality are built in to every human being at every stage of life by our nature.

I know this now, as my Catholic education so informed me.

By the time I graduated from elementary school (K-eight), I was already beginning to discern not only what God might be calling me to become, but who I already was as a human being. The two were not separate: my priestly mission as a disciple of Jesus Christ through baptism; and my vocation to become a priest, God willing, if His Church would one day affirm that sense of being called to the ministerial, ordained priesthood.

Next week, I will continue this reflection, and discuss how much I am indebted to my Catholic education for my vocational awareness, my formation in the Catholic faith and, most of all, my character as a human being -- indeed, my whole life.

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)