I was recently asked to pen a piece on the intersection of education and Catholic faith. Let me begin with a confession: I am almost entirely the product of Catholic education. I attended a Catholic elementary school administered by the Sisters of Saint Dominic (Saint Mary’s Grammar School in Gloucester City) and a diocesan high school (Gloucester Catholic) before attending Rutgers University. I was formed in graduate studies at Saint Louis University; Weston School of Theology and Seton Hall University.
This educational formation in a Catholic Christian humanism that is optimistic, reflective, creative and serious about the service of faith and the promotion of justice marked me for life and continues to shape what is best within my character. Education is my service and my ministry.
Perhaps the most powerful experiences I’ve had as a Catholic educator in a variety of locales — Gloucester Catholic High School; Saint Joseph’s Prep and Gesu School; Central Catholic in Lawrence, Mass. ; Boston College High School and Saint Joseph’s University — have been the experience of shared worship with faculty, students and staff.
Whether at Saint Agnes Church on graduation day or in our gym for all school liturgies, the experience has been the same at Gloucester Catholic as in the other settings mentioned: gathered in worship, we are most ourselves as a Catholic school.
The sum of our activities in the classroom, school offices and co-curricular activities is lifted up and present as we do what Jesus told us to do: remember him in the breaking of the bread. Whatever the relation in all those other settings, we are gathered as one in prayer at those moments.
Even our non-Catholic students have commented to me that their attendance and shared prayer, in whatever its form, is a central point for their feeling that they belong. As Vincent Li of Shandong province in China wrote,“I traveled across the world to become a Ram! My four years of Catholic teaching at Gloucester Catholic have totally changed me inside and out. Catholic teaching has helped me to become the person I always wanted to be and it will change your life too!”
The Kingdom of God is personal. It is forged in face-to-face relationships. It cannot be reduced to meme, slogan, position paper or virtual reality. It is real and proclaimed in, as the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote, “the bits and pieces of Everyday.”
The Gospels are replete with testimony that anyone who came into contact with Jesus was changed by the encounter, particularly if they were present at a meal which he shared with them. Whether five thousand, a tax collector’s home, the house of a Pharisee or the upper room, to share Jesus’s table was to be transformed. The same is true today.
When asked who is the greatest, Jesus summoned a child out of the street, an urchin with no one to care for him or her, and proclaimed to his disciples, including the apostles, that one who is like this child — utterly dependent upon God and trusting in God’s care — is the greatest among us all. And becoming like this child in a relation of trust in the God who is the source and sustenance of all creation which is good is the heart’s core of our call to create Catholic communities in our schools, our parishes, our families and our lives.
My prayer is that we hear that call in our hallways, service sites, sports fields, retreat locations, classrooms and stages and answer it with open hearts.
Edward F. Beckett is principal of Gloucester Catholic High School, Gloucester City.