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Celebrating catholic schools

Fr. Lou DelFra | Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Letter to the Hebrews records one of the most awesome articulations of the love of God that the human race has ever received: “So that he could truly mediate between God and humans, Jesus became like his brothers and sisters in every way. Because he himself was tested and suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested and are suffering.” This is the Incarnation: that the transcendent, omnipotent and omniscient God, who is pure, infinite and unconditional Love, took on human flesh.
This mystery of the Incarnation, however, comes with a few severe disadvantages. Think about it this way: because God decided to become human, God would have to deliver his message in human ways. No more voices from pillars of cloud and fire. No snap of the heavenly fingers to wipe away all suffering and tears. No spiritual social media to quickly spread the word around first-century Palestine about the coming of the Kingdom of God. No, if God were to become fully human, then God would have to play by human rules, which of course entailed making regular use of human-made creations for support and help.
As a result, because God has decided to take on human form, we can hardly read a single story in the Gospels without seeing some human-made creation that helped to carry Christ and His message to the world. We can’t, for example, make it through the Infancy Narratives without the mangee, the wood and straw crafted by human hands that bore the vital role of cradling Christ as an infant, a place of nurture in the early, vulnerable days of his life. Think about this for a moment: it was in a structure created by human hands, and through human ingenuity and labor, that God was first revealed to the shepherds and the magi – the first people to believe in the Christ.
We can’t make it through so many of the early scenes in Jesus’ life, on the Sea of Galilee, for example, without boats – again, the result of human craft, ingenuity, creativity and sweat.  These boats, time and again, served the crucial role of bearing Christ and his disciples on the sea. It is from a boat that Jesus first preaches to the crowds on shore. It is from a boat that Jesus calms the storm, walks on water, asks the disciples to lower their nets on the right side for a bigger catch.
We could come up with a whole list of the man-made creations that serve to bear the presence of Christ to the world: the ceramic jugs at Cana that held His first miracle from which the wedding guests could drink the finest wine; the house at Capernaum, where Jesus gathered frequently with his first listeners; even the Cross and the tomb are structures made from human hands that would bear the most awesome revelation of the power of God, as they held Christ and bore his weight. These works of human creativity and labor became, through the grace of God, instruments of evangelization, by which many would come to know God’s love.
Because God became human, God has always used human creations, human structures, as vehicles of grace. This week, throughout the United States, we celebrate and pray for one of the most effective vehicles of evangelization in the history of the Church: the American Catholic school system. All of the human-made creations in the Gospels – the manger, the boats of Galilee, the wine jugs of Cana – which served the purpose of bearing Christ to the world, thereby become little images for us of Catholic schools. These schools are the work of the hands and minds, the ingenuity, sweat and sheer determination of countless nuns, brothers, priests and laypeople – generations of American Catholics. Like all human structures, they require our craft, skill and devotion, all so that Christ might have a place to be born, have a place from which to speak to the crowds, have a place to work miracles, have a place to accomplish the saving acts of his death and resurrection, over and over again in our midst, in our neighborhoods and among our children.
Some days, one Gospel image in particular – the boat caught in a storm, whipped by winds and waters threatening to overwhelm this sturdy yet fragile human-made structure – presents an almost too-apt image of our beloved Catholic schools. Since 2000, at least 1,755 Catholic schools have closed (though there have been 460 new schools opened). Since 2000, enrollment is down an estimated 22 percent. The poor and inner-city schools, where excellent, faith-based education is in some ways needed the most, are most adversely impacted. A recent Notre Dame study has shown when a Catholic school closes, neighborhood crime goes up and social cohesion goes down. The boat, undoubtedly, is in the midst of a storm.
And yet, this Gospel image is one we might willingly embrace, for at the center of the boat, at the center of what was conceived and made by, and now threatened by, human effort lies Jesus, the Son of God. He is the heart of Catholic schools; He is the reason for the whole structure. And He guarantees his continued, steadying presence if we stay committed to keeping Him awake and alive at the center of our efforts.
We made these boats to carry Christ’s presence in the world. Like the disciples in the boat that stormy day, as we rouse ourselves to overcome the storms that face us, let us make sure to run and rouse Christ too – for He is the still point, the unshakeable center, in the middle of the storm. He is the one whom even the wind and seas obey. So, this Catholic Schools Week, we ought to gather our strength and rekindle our spirits, energies and commitment around the One who is constantly inviting us to build, so He can continue to teach and proclaim his saving words.
Fr. Lou DelFra is director of pastoral life for ACE and a resident of Keenan Hall.  He can be reached at
[email protected]
    The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.