Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

January 24, 2014

Catholic Schools Week 2014: Coming to Know God

Just before my college graduation, I prayed: “I want to know you God. I really want to know you.”

Apparently, that prayer was stamped with “high priority” and my answer came about four months to the day of graduation. That’s when I started as a gym coach at St. Monica School in Santa Monica.

I didn’t piece it altogether at first, but I really got to know God from the day I taught my first gym class.

I was struck by the friendship of the eighth grade boys and girls. Oh, they teased each other as normal. But there was a deep bond between them. I could imagine them standing by each other as lifelong friends.

I was surprised by the caring teachers. The sixth grade teacher came outside and played volleyball with her students. The third graders raced to line back up for class when they saw their teacher coming to meet them. I had the feeling it was because they wanted to get back to be with her.

I got a kick out of the “ker plunk” sound the kneelers made hitting the floor at the school Mass. Kids just minutes before sweaty and loud on the playground were now on their knees in seriousness and silence through the Eucharistic prayer.

In November the principal called me inside to substitute in a junior high classroom. The bell rang after the last period math class and I was about to dismiss the students to go home. One of the girls reminded me that the day always ended with a prayer. And then she led the prayer herself.

I don’t remember the day or month that I realized the connection between all of these experiences to my college graduation prayer, but eventually I did. And ever since I’ve felt fortunate that when my own kids or anyone else has asked me when I first really came to know or name God in my life, I can answer “It was on a blacktop in Santa Monica. It was at a Catholic school”

I’ve been reminded of these memories in connection with this year’s celebration of Catholic School’s Week. This year’s theme is “Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service.

An entire school community imbues faith certainly but the primary way faith is shared, practiced, and encouraged is through religious instruction. In a theology class, neither the Catholic educator nor the textbook and other resources he or she uses are intended as conduits of information to be shared in a sterile way with passive students. In fact the best success teachers or textbooks can have in enhancing the faith of students is their direct correlation to sharing the presence of Christ. Regarding the teacher’s crucial role in sharing faith, Pope Benedict XVI said:

The central figure in the work of educating . . . is specifically the form of witness. . . . The witness never refers to himself but to something, or rather, to Someone greater than he, whom he has encountered and whose dependable goodness he has sampled. Thus, every educator and witness finds an unequaled model in Jesus Christ, the Father's great witness, who said nothing about himself but spoke as the Father had taught him [cf. John 8:28].

The connection between religious education and knowledge is of greater importance as moral relativism creeps more and more into our culture and impacts the lives of teens and young adults in dramatic ways. Catholic school teachers, and theology teachers in particular, are called to shape in their students a desire for truth, a way to recognize truth, and a way to articulate truth to their peers. Pope John Paul II addressed this challenge in an ad limina talk to American bishops:

The greatest challenge to Catholic education in the United States today, and the greatest contribution that authentically Catholic education can make to American culture, is to restore to that culture the conviction that human beings can grasp the truth of things, and, in grasping that truth, can know their duties to God, to themselves and their neighbors. . . . The contemporary world urgently needs the service of educational institutions that uphold and teach that truth is "that fundamental value without which freedom, justice, and human dignity are extinguished" (Veritatis Splendor, 4).

The altruistic nature of Catholic schools and their students is always tangible. A Catholic Schools Week is a chance to refocus this mission and deepen it. Service, as Pope Francis emphasized in his closing homily at World Youth day, is “the final word.” There is rarely a day that goes bythat the Pope doesn’t model service. The personal touch of Pope Francis can’t help to inspire teens to carry Christ to others and to expand lessons learned in the classroom to action literally in the streets of their surrounding communities.

Over the years you have noticed that in each chapter of Ave Maria Press textbooks are activities and suggestions for deepening faith, broadening learning, and sharing both lessons with others. These “mind, heart, and hand” panels are rooted in the Congregation of Holy Cross mission to let students “try their learning in the world and so make prayers of their education” (Bl. Basil Moreau).

The Holy Cross common rule also states that “the spirit of faith inspires and animates zeal, that is to say, the sacred fire which the Divine Master came to bring on earth.” Zeal is an apt word. If, after all these years, I could go back and describe what I first witnessed in the students on the playground in Santa Monica and how this experience helped me to see God’s face in the world, I might now answer that I witnessed a zeal for life among the impassioned, enthusiastic, friendly, loving boys and girls of those days. Isn’t God the same way?

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