“When Jesus touches a young person’s heart, he or she becomes capable of truly great things.” – Pope Francis
The quote above from Pope Francis’s introductory remarks to the pilgrims of World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow, Poland, spoke to over 2 million young adults traveling around the globe to worship together. Pope Francis’ words were heard by people already impacted by the message of Christ, many of whom, I would guess were informed of and formed by the love of God thanks to their Catholic educations.
Today we celebrate in the United States the feast of St. John Neumann, Bishop of Philadelphia and founder of the first diocesan school system in the United States. Per the request of many families in his diocese, Bishop Neumann established a diocesan school system so that the children of the diocese could receive Catholic instruction and grow in their faith in a classroom setting. When the school system was established, the diocese of Philadelphia was strapped for resources, so Bishop Neumann invited many different religious communities to the fledgling schools to tend to the rapidly growing immigrant population in the city. His efforts both established the school system and increased the education of the city’s Catholic youth by more than twenty-fold. His diocesan system later served as the model for parochial Catholic education for much of the United States.
St. John Neumann understood in the 19th Century - much like Pope Francis does now -that learning about the love of Christ through educational experiences can be an important part of our evangelical mission in this world. If we are all called to share in the evangelizing mission of the Gospel, then we must consider in what ways those gifts and talents can be utilized for the purpose of that mission. For St. John Neumann, Catholic education provided the youth a designated place to come and learn about the Lord and how to live as a Catholic alongside of their other studies.
For many youth, their formal catechesis ends with sacramental preparation. Families often don’t understand the importance of continual catechesis throughout a person’s life. So, what can we do to help the youth and young adults in our parishes and communities become more engaged in the faith outside of Catholic schools? How can we support education in non-traditional ways? The answer is particular to your individual situation and universal to the faith we all believe in. Pope Francis has some advice and good examples of experiences that I cannot better summarize myself:
“Knowing your enthusiasm for mission, I repeat: mercy always has a youthful face! Because a merciful heart is motivated to move beyond its comfort zone. A merciful heart can go out and meet others; it is ready to embrace everyone. A merciful heart can be a place of refuge for those who are without a home or have lost their home; it can build a home and a family for those forced to emigrate; it knows the meaning of tenderness and compassion. A merciful heart can share its bread with the hungry and welcome refugees and migrants. To say the word ‘mercy’ along with you is to speak of opportunity, future, commitment, trust, openness, hospitality, compassion and dreams.”
Is your parish environment one of mercy? Does it foster openness and compassion? Is it willing to embrace people where they are with mercy and hospitality? Is your parish one that is moving outside of its parish borders and going to where it’s a bit uncomfortable and meeting people where they are both physically and spiritually?
This is part of the continuing education that we as Catholics must undertake if we are to carry the mission of God to the world. We must constantly learn and relearn the message of Christ as espoused in the Gospels and find ways to practice it in our daily lives. We must learn to love and serve God and to love and serve our neighbor, not just from behind a desk, but in every step we take.