By Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz
This is the homily that I delivered to the elementary school teachers gathered for the opening school Mass on Monday, Aug. 10.
At this Mass, we gather in prayer for each other and for the students whom parents have wisely entrusted to your care and teaching. We welcome especially those who will be teaching in our Catholic schools for the first time this year. May your teaching be fruitful and rewarding.
Today is the feast of St. Lawrence, a deacon in the early Church, who died a martyr’s death in 258 A.D. St. Lawrence was well known for being a steward of the funds of the Church to be distributed to those who were very poor. Legend has it that the Emperor called him and said that he would not persecute the Church if St. Lawrence would share with him the treasures of the Church. St. Lawrence paused and then asked if he might have two days to gather the treasures.
The holy deacon returned to the Emperor accompanied by all the poor people of Rome — those with handicaps and deformities, those without work or a home, those with leprosy and all sorts of ailments, the old and the young, the frail and the forgotten. Pointing to them, St. Lawrence said, “Your highness, here are the treasures of the Church!”
He was echoing the very words of Jesus, who pointing to the forgotten of His day, said, “Blessed are the poor …” and again, “He who would welcome a child in My name, welcomes Me!”
Throughout the Archdiocese, we seek to hear these words afresh. In fact, it is the child in need who is the focus of the planning that has been done over the last year to ensure that our Catholic schools remain accessible and affordable for all. All of our 111 parishes, which stretch from the Ohio River to the Tennessee border, came together to support a special annual assessment to help the families who yearn for a Catholic school education, and to date, more than $5 million dollars will be provided to assist these families. Parishes, even those without a Catholic school, agreed that they would help because they saw the child in need and responded generously.
You are the St. Lawrence of this day, serving those most in need. It is your noble vocation to teach with zeal and joy, all within our wonderful Catholic teachings. Some of you may be inspired this year by what has been called the “dangerous prayer.” The dangerous prayer has been prayed throughout the history of our Church. It is a simple prayer, but one that will change our lives mightily. Here it is: “Lord, give to me the person whom no one else loves!”
The person whom no one else loves is a person of great dignity — a child created in the image and likeness of God.
However, that dignity can be hidden and needs to be drawn forth by the loving and faithful teacher who prays the dangerous prayer.
For example, take a crisp $50 bill. If asked if this bill is worth something, we would reply: “Of course, it is worth $50!” If I were to crumble it in a ball and throw it in the mud and then ask if it is still worth anything, the reply would be: “It is still worth all $50!” So it is with a child of God who has lost his or her freshness. The teacher of the dangerous prayer reaches this child, makes her whole again, and brings forth that dignity.
Dignity is both a gift and a task. It is a gift: no matter the condition or circumstances, every student remains a precious child of God. But the task — a teacher’s task — is to bring forth that dignity.
When I was small and did something wrong, my dear mother always brought me back to my senses with a short but powerful sentence: “What you just did,” I can still hear her say, “was beneath your dignity!”
A good teacher, armed with the dangerous prayer, can be the channel of a restored dignity to a student with great needs. What a noble vocation!
St. Paul in 2 Corinthians calls us to sow seeds abundantly and reap abundantly. A caution is that teachers often are in the position of planting seeds so that others enjoy the harvest, but that is your work for the kingdom of God.
In the Gospel, Jesus shares the nature of the beauty of sacrificing love that is your vocation as a teacher: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” The sublime vocation of living not for self but for another is to love in truth.
In his newly published book, “Road to Character,” New York Times columnist David Brooks points to virtues of the recent past that need to be resurrected in our age. He reflects on the temptation of our modern youth to a new narcissism in which everything is about me, and my esteem is so great and unchallenged that I come to believe that no one is better than I am, and I have little to learn. Rather than self-esteem on steroids, he calls for a humble self-respect that says, “I am better than I used to be!”
Teachers who take up the dangerous prayer will be led to reach out, as heroic teachers have done in the past, and to move your students, especially those who seem unloved, toward love and truth in Jesus Christ. The philosopher and convert to Catholicism, Edith Stein, became a cloistered nun, taking the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. In 1942 she died a martyr’s death, like St. Lawrence centuries before, at the hands of the tyrannical Nazis. Known as one who sought to harmonize faith and reason (science), she once said: “Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love and do not accept anything as love which lacks truth! One without the other becomes a destructive lie.”
Thank you, dear teachers, for bringing zeal and enthusiasm to your students this year. This year, may you pray the “dangerous prayer: “Lord, give to me the person whom no one else loves!” May you gently and lovingly lead your students into the truth of Jesus Christ.