Saturday, April 14, 2012

NCEA Opening Message


This week Catholic teachers, principals, and catechists gathered from all over the nation and world to pray, share, and learn from each other.  It was amazing!  It all began with Cardinal Sean leading us in our Easter Wednesday Celebration of the Eucharist and a beautiful homily on the call to serve our students...

We were very pleased this year to host the over 10,000 people who came to Boston to attend the National Catholic Education Association Convention, which was held at the Hynes Convention Center April 11-13. Though the convention was actually held in Boston, the convention was sponsored and organized by all the dioceses of New England. It was a fantastic example of collaboration among the dioceses. I was asked to celebrate the opening liturgy Wednesday morning. There were a number of bishops who joined us for the Mass, among them Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta who is the chairman of the NCEA Board of Directors.

One of the most impressive aspects of the opening ceremonies was the joint high school choir. Students from nine different high schools throughout the archdiocese came together to perform for us.My understanding is that they only practiced a few times together before the actual convention, but they were just marvelous. You would never guess that they had really just met each other.

I like to share with you the text of my homily from that day:

The formula for a bishop’s homily in the Middle Ages prescribed that some witticisms be included in the Easter sermons. This was to provoke laughter in the congregation because on Easter we are supposed to laugh at death. This custom was referred to as the “Risus Paschalis”. What better place to look for witticisms that mock death than in our cemeteries themselves particularly in some of the epitaphs that adorn the graves. Today I would like to share a few of my favorites.

One of the best is Benjamin Franklin’s which very poetically expresses his belief in the resurrection. On his gravestone is written: “the body of Benjamin Franklin the printer, like the cover of an old book, its contents worn-out, stripped of its lettering and gilding, lies here food for worms. But the work shall not be lost; for it will, as he believed, appear once more in a new and more elegant edition revised and corrected by the author.”

Examples of other memorable epitaphs which are more profane and irreverent are:
* Here lies the body of Jonathan Blake. He stepped on the gas instead of the brake.
* Another epitaph from Boot Hill, Arizona reads: Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs from a 44, no Les no More.
* One of my favorites is this one found on a tombstone in Massachusetts: Under the sod and under the trees
Lies the body of Jonathan Pease. He is not here, there’s only the pod. Pease shelled out and went to God.
* Another famous epitaph from England, a rather somber challenge to the passerby is as follows: Remember man, as you walk by, As you are now, so once was I. As I am now so shall you be Remember this and  follow me. To which some smart Alec replied by scribbling on the tombstone: To followed you I’ll not consent Until I know which way you went.

During Easter we stand before a tomb that has no epitaph. It is a tomb that is empty and obsolete. A tomb that was borrowed from Joseph of Arimathea. Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room in the Inn. He tells us that although the birds of the air have their nests and the foxes have their dens, the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head. Even in death Jesus does not have a tomb of his own. But today we rejoice because that borrowed tomb is empty and we can laugh at death.

The empty tomb and the shroud on the floor are but the first hints of the greatest event in human history. On Easter morning, Jesus Christ, who had been murdered, executed as a criminal, rose from the dead. At first the disciples find an empty tomb, but soon they encounter the Risen Lord. During the 40 days that followed Easter the Risen Lord appears over and over again. On Good Friday, the prophecy was fulfilled that said: “They will strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter.” That is precisely what happened when Jesus was arrested and crucified. The disciples scattered in sorrow and disappointment. To them everything was over. But on Easter, their sorrow and pain is turned into amazement and joy. The Shepherd has returned to gather the scattered. The Risen Lord comes back and appears to Magdalene in her grief and gathers her to himself. The Lord appears to Thomas in his doubts, and invites him to put his fingers into the place of the nails and to be not unbelieving but believing. The Lord appears to Peter who has denied him three times, and three times he asked Peter: “Peter do you love me?” and he gathers Peter to himself. The Risen Lord, the Good Shepherd, wants to gather us in our scattered lives, in our brokenness, in our insecurities; he wants to assure us of his love and friendship.

The Risen Lord makes himself present to us in his word, in the sacraments and in his community. He comes to gather us into a family. Being a disciple of the Risen Lord means being part of the church, part of the community of believers that accepts the mission Christ has entrusted to us to share the good news with the world. The good news is that God so loved the world that he sent is only begotten son to be our Savior and that Jesus has conquered sin and death for us.

On the Road to Emmaus the Good Shepherd is still gathering His scattered flock. Virtually everyone agrees that the familiar story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is a beautiful scene that contains many favorite Themes of St. Luke, such as encounters made by people on a journey, the question of faith, the offering of hospitality and recognition of Jesus in the Eucharist. This passage has captured the imagination of countless painters from Caravaggio to Velazquez and Rembrandt to name just a few.

The Gospel describes a journey that begins in despair and profound sorrow and ends, against all expectation, with the discovery of Faith, and Hope. There are no heroes here, not even an Apostle. Instead there are just two people like ourselves, bewildered, their faith faltering. This is a story about loss of direction and doubt turned to strong and joyful faith. This is not accomplished by a spectacular demonstration. The methods Jesus uses to evoke Faith in the story are the methods He uses now. The disciples on the road to Emmaus are like many Catholics today.

The two disciples are on a journey that takes them away from Jerusalem, away from the Holy City. They have turned their back on significant places, on meaning itself. Perhaps they were leaving the Church, on their way back to a life in which there was no great hope, no promise of a Messiah for the nation, or of meaning for themselves, but in which at least there would be no terrible disappointments, none of the desolation of Good Friday.

Cleopas and his companion encounter a stranger on their journey, but they do not recognize Jesus, their eyes are held from seeing Him, and they even get annoyed by the stranger’s stupid questions to them.

This is the turning point in the story, for Jesus begins to teach them, not with new revelations, but by opening up to them their own past. He walks them through the History of Salvation recorded in the Jewish Scriptures, to show how His life and suffering and death really do make sense, that what had taken place in Jerusalem was the fulfillment these two disciples and all God’s people had been waiting for. Though their eyes were blurred, the Lord’s words touched their hearts.

When they arrive at the village of Emmaus, something remarkable happens. Jesus makes as if He is going to continue on His journey. What if Cleopas and his buddy had said: “So long, nice chatting with you?” This Gospel would never have been written. Mother Teresa used to say “Give God permission!” Our God wants our permission to come into our hearts. God wants to be invited into our lives, into our hearts and even to our dinner table.

Lucky for us the disciples invited Jesus – “Stay with us it is getting late.” At the table Jesus took the bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them. At the moment they see these Eucharistic gestures, their eyes are open. They recognize Jesus, but at that moment, the Risen Lord vanishes from their sight. The Lord disappears but the bread remains and the bread is the body of Christ. The tabernacle at St. Matthews Cathedral in Washington is flanked by mosaics of the two disciples, arms raised in amazement as they gaze at the Eucharist.

I am sure the two men never finished that meal. They ran back to Jerusalem to share their joy with the community. “We have seen the Lord and have recognized Him in the breaking of the bread”, they exclaim.

The task of our Catholic education is to accompany our young Catholics on a journey that allows them to experience the Risen Christ as the two disciples did: in the Word, in the Sacrament, and in the community of faith.

In this marvelous passage from Luke, the narrative is taking shape among Jesus’ first followers after Good Friday. The reports of the women about the empty tomb, the witness of the prophets, the recognition of Jesus in the breaking of the bread, and the report that Jesus had already appeared to Simon. The sharing of the narrative of diverse experiences begins to create a deeper community. The scattered disciples, whirled in different directions are being gathered in one place with one shared story which is “The Lord is Risen.”

This is the task of Catholic educators, to witness to the great truths of our faith and introduce a new generation of Catholics to the Risen Lord. We learn the faith, the way we learn a language by living in a community that speaks that language. We need to mentor people in the faith. It is not about information as it is about formation.

Our experience of the Eucharistic community leads us to embrace our mission. The disciples are moved by God’s word, amazed by the breaking of the bread and then set out on their mission to tell the Good News to the world.

The first reading from Acts captures Peter and John in their ministry to announce the Good News and care for the sick and the marginalized. On their way to the temple they are accosted by a beggar at the gate, a clear contrast with Lazarus at the gates of the Rich Man. To that rich man, Lazarus starving and covered with sores, was invisible. The scriptures tell us Peter and John looked intently at the beggar. Their eyes of faith allowed them to see in that suffering beggar a brother, and potentially a disciple of Jesus. The words of Peter could be the motto for the Catholic schools of our country: “Gold and silver we have none, but what we do have, we give you in the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazarean, rise and walk.”

Academic excellence is quite important, but we must be convinced that we have something more to give our students, we can help them to rise and walk in newness of life.

The beggar in the scriptures jumped up, leaping and jumping and praising God. He had been at the gate, the apostles lead him into the temple. Many of our Catholic students are at the gate, on the door stoop. We must lead them into the temple, into the heart of the Church. Pope Benedict in his Mass at St. Patrick’s commented on the stain glass windows. From the outside they seem dark and ugly. Once inside we can appreciate the color and light in all its splendor. So it is with the Church. It is from within that we can perceive her beauty and appreciate her mission.

We need to give our students the joy of knowing Jesus Christ and being part of His family. We want to help them see suffering humanity with compassionate eyes that see even those who are invisible to the worldly.
St. Luke says that after the beggar was cured he would not let go of Peter’s arm. What a great image that is. As Peter begins to teach in the temple the people drew near in amazement. Peter in his speech makes the connection between the beggar’s healing and the resurrection of Christ.

I am always a little disappointed when our Catholic schools and religious education programs have wonderful service projects to serve the poor and the underprivileged, and yet fail to make the connection with the Risen Christ and the Eucharist.

We must never be complacent about students who do not come to Sunday Eucharist and look for new ways to help them understand and appreciate the Eucharist as the center of our lives as Catholics and the source of the strength we need to carry on our mission, to announce the Good News and build a civilization of love.

As Pope Benedict put it so well:
“Today Eucharist means the Risen Lord is constantly present, Christ who continues to give Himself to us, calling us to participate in the Banquet of His Body and Blood. From the full communion with Him comes every other element of the life of the Church, in the first place the communion among the Faithful, the commitment to proclaim and give witness to the Gospel, the ardor of charity towards all, especially toward the poor and the smallest.”

With the joy and enthusiasm of Cleopas and his companion, we want to say to a new generation of Catholics that we can still laugh at death, for the Lord is truly risen and we have recognized Him in the breaking of the bread!”

Catholic education is the soul of evangelization. It is not just about communicating information, but forming people in the faith and leading them to Christ. A huge part of our effort is in the Catholic school system, which is a great treasure of our Church.

We are very proud of the wonderful work that is being done by our Catholic schools that exist because of the sacrifices of many of the faithful, particularly communities of religious women who helped to establish our schools. And now the lay teachers and administrators who have stepped up to the plate make it possible for this very important ministry to continue.

It is important for us to come together and celebrate these achievements and also encourage people who are involved in promoting Catholic identity in educational excellence in our Catholic schools.

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