Catholic Schools: Saving the World, One Student at A Time

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Column by Jonathan Nagy

Just over two years ago and a little less than a year before his death, I spent time at a gathering with Father Bob Hilz, TOR. Anyone who knew Father Bob knew his gentleness and genuineness. I will never forget what he said to me that evening. I walked into the room, and as fast as his small frame would allow, Father Bob rushed up to me. He said, “I was hoping you would be here. I am so glad to see you my friend!” Father said he had a gift for me. As he dug through his briefcase, he said, “You are one of the best, faithful teachers that I know. You have done so much to help so many, but I want to give you something to help you know what God’s plan is for you and how you can fulfill it!” He was smiling ear to ear and was so excited as he reached in and pulled out an old photocopied piece of paper. From looking at this paper, he clearly had it for a while, as it was far from pristine and had seen better times, but yet the message written on it seemed appropriate for the shape of the document. He read it aloud before handing it to me, telling me to keep the message close. The words on the page are as follows:

Jesus The Teacher: He never taught a lesson in a classroom…He had no tools to work with, no blackboards, maps, or charts…He used no subject outlines, kept no records, gave no grades, and His only text was ancient and well-worn…His students were the poor, the lame, the deaf, the blind, the outcast – and His method was the same with all who came to hear and learn…He opened ears with faith…He opened ears with simple truth…and opened hearts with love, a love born of forgiveness…A gentle man, a humble man, He asked and won no honors no gold awards of tribute to His expertise or wisdom…And yet this quiet teacher from the hills of Galilee has fed the needs, fulfilled the hopes, and changed the lives of many millions…For what He taught brought heaven to earth and God’s heart to mankind.

To this day, that old, worn, crimpled piece of paper hangs on my desk at home, where I do a great deal of work. In tough times, it gives me focus. In great times, it gives me joy. In challenging moments, it gives me encouragement. Beyond that, the fact that Father Bob felt it was so very important for me to have this and reflect on it means so much. The rest of the conversation is very personal and private to me, and I will cherish it dearly for the rest of my life, but the encouragement he gave me was both unexpected and very much appreciated.

As anyone in education can attest, being a teacher in the current world environment is difficult in so many ways. Gone are the days where teachers were only expected to teach. The many hats worn by teachers today are wearing them down, leading to burnout and early retirements. The requirements on teachers, who by the way, are not the most well-paid professionals, can be grinding. Often I hear comments from those not in the education field questioning why I and my colleagues put ourselves through this. The answer to that question, for me, is the face of every student I have ever taught and will ever teach.

In my 19 years at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School, I have taught well over 1000 students. I can remember each of them in my classes: their faces, personalities, laughs, smiles, interests, and successes. Rarely can I go anywhere locally where I do not run into a former student. I am always so glad to speak with each of them, hearing what they have been doing since they left my classroom. It gives me great pride to see the impact that these individuals are making on the world, and to know that I may have had a small part in their development. I pray that I have been able to fulfill the mission that was written on that paper from Father Bob about Jesus the Teacher, in “feeding the needs, fulfilling the hopes, and changing the lives of many.”

Catholic theologian Scott Hahn once wrote, “Jesus is the authentic teacher, and authentic teachers can’t help but teach.” This is so true about Jesus and about teachers today. I often find myself educating others on random topics, even my friends, who sometimes just roll their eyes at me! As they say, once a teacher, always a teacher! As challenging as the teaching profession can be, Catholic school teachers answer to a higher challenge than just passing on earthly knowledge.

Reflecting on the Jesus the Teacher story, Catholic school teachers do so much with so little. We don’t have a lot of fancy, shiny tools to work with in our classrooms. Our books may not be brand new every year. Our classrooms may not smell and look like they just came out of the showroom. Yet, the product that is created is immeasurable, for we are to “open eyes with faith, ears with simple truth, and hearts with love.” The goal of a Catholic school teacher is not only to assist students in learning what is important in this world, but how to prepare for what is to come in the next!

In the First Book of Samuel, Samuel did not know God when he began as a child helping Eli in the temple. Eli allowed Samuel to sleep in the temple so that he could help him maintain it, but this also came with wonderful side effects. Eli, being the teacher, wanted Samuel to learn who God was and to be open to His call. Being in such a holy place and so close to the Ark of the Covenant allowed Samuel to be open to hearing God and encouraged him to shout, “Speak, for your servant is listening!” 1 Samuel 3:19 states, “Samuel grew up, and the Lord was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.”

The job of Catholic school teachers is to do exactly what Eli did for Samuel. We are to bring our students close to God so that they are open to hearing His call. This is a powerful charge left to us by Jesus Christ and should always be at the forefront of every Catholic educator’s mind. Pope Benedict XVI backed this idea up when he spoke to Catholic educators in Washington, D.C. on April 17, 2012. He said, “Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News. First and foremost, every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth. This relationship elicits a desire to grow in the knowledge and understanding of Christ and His teaching. In this way, those who meet Him are drawn by the very power of the Gospel to lead a new life characterized by all that is beautiful, good, and true; a life of Christian witness nurtured and strengthened within the community of our Lord’s disciples, the Church.”

Pope Benedict XVI wholly believed in Catholic education and was always a strong supporter of the mission given by Jesus Christ to “Go and teach.” To follow those thoughts, my favorite quote from Pope Benedict is, “If we allow the love of Christ to change our heart, then we can change the world.” That is my goal as a Catholic school teacher. That is the goal of other faithful Catholic school teachers. That is the mission of all good Catholic schools. We are here to open students up to the love of God and how they can then use their gifts and talents to share that love and message with the entire world. To that end, Catholic schools are helping to save the world, one promising student at a time. We hope that when they leave our buildings, they go take Christ with them to every corner of the world!

As we celebrate Catholic Schools Week, I want to take the opportunity to thank everyone who is or has been involved in Catholic education, including fellow educators, parents, students, priests, religious, alumni, and benefactors. As the mission of Bishop Carroll Catholic High School states, we rely on a collaborative effort of members of our families, communities, church, and world, to help develop students in spirit, heart, mind, and body. Catholic education truly is a vocation, and everyone who has played even a small role has helped to fulfill the mission of Jesus the Teacher. Thank you all!

For families looking for positive changes for the education of their children, I encourage you to take a look at your local Catholic school. You may think you understand and know what the schools are about, but until you experience it for yourself, you cannot fully appreciate what a Catholic education can do for your children, their future, and the future of the world. If you have questions about Catholic education, I am not hard to find for fielding questions or providing information! I encourage you to talk to your pastors, other families, and especially the students who experience the joys of Catholic education day in and day out.

May everyone have a great Catholic Schools Week! Celebrate the mission that Jesus the Teacher has given to our schools; a mission that they fulfill admirably!

Jonathan Nagy, M.Ed., is the Dean of Students and Social Studies teacher at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School in Ebensburg. He is also the Music Director at the Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel in Loretto.