Good morning dear friends. I hope you are all as happy as you sound this morning. I thank you for inviting me to be a part of this celebration which marks the beginning of a new school year in our Catholic Schools. It is a very special celebration, so let us open our hearts this morning to the gifts that God is anxious to give to us.
Last week I took part in an ecumenical service at St. Michael’s Retreat. It marked the departure of the Franciscans after over 50 years of service at St. Michaels. I had shared with them an event in the life of St. Francis and I would like to share it with you this morning. I believe you will easily see the connection.
St. Francis “was a great preacher so that, when he entered a village or town, people would flock to hear him, sometimes in their hundreds and even thousands. Telling a brother that they were going to a certain village to preach you can imagine his consternation when Francis wandered through the village greeting and talking to people. He neither preached in the village square nor in the church which was his normal custom. When they had passed through the village, the brother asked him about this. Francis replied, "But, dear brother, we are the sermon".
We can easily let words like that impress us because Francis was the founder of a great religious community and it was his calling to speak to people about the love of God. And, if a preacher is going to come and spend 45 minutes giving a homily, it is perhaps much nicer to think that he will be spending those 45 minutes talking with people, listening to their cares and concerns and sharing his wisdom with them. So we warm up to St. Francis. So we are more likely to see a statue of St. Francis put up in a back yard garden than any other saint.
But Francis was not a Hippie. He didn’t preach a sentimental love and peace. What he preached was real and we all know that real life, real love, real peace – both within us and around us- is not sentimental fluff. It is hard and it is challenging. People flocked to St. Francis because his whole life was real and it was hard and challenging – he lived in total poverty. Poverty is not romantic it is oppressive. His love was real – he reached out to the most unlovable.
As part of his conversion, he encountered a leper begging one day, I would like to quote to you this description of a leper as understood in Francis’ time.
When a person had leprosy, his flesh was rotting on his body. His nose was shrivelled, voice hoarse and his nails were rough and coarse. His face, upper body, fingers and hands is covered with yellow, red and brown lumps. His face thickens and becomes deformed. Ulcers appear, limbs stiffen and his body reeks like a dung heap. Even dogs and cats avoid him. To even breathe in the air
surrounding a leper was to risk becoming a leper oneself. So everyone took every precaution to avoid a leper, to chase them away, drive them out, avoid them at all costs.
You can imagine how difficult such a life was. It was a life filled with rejection and contempt; a life without love. Francis does not run, he goes to the leper, puts his arms around him and embraces him. Francis gave to the leper the love of God for him by loving him himself. I mention all of this about St. Francis, because the way he preached is the way teachers teach at Catholic Schools. Teachers not only teach a lesson. Teachers are the lesson. And the lesson is love.
Think about all the people who have taught you in schools and universities. Who are the ones you remember most fondly? Who are the ones who influenced your life? I suspect that you do not remember very much of what any of them said. But I believe that you remember what kind of person he or she was and how he or she influenced you and your life decisions by who he or she was.
And as a teacher in a Catholic school, like Francis who was the sermon, you are the lesson. And what distinguishes you from a teacher in any other type of school, is that you are a person of faith, you are a disciple of Jesus, God’s love made flesh. You have something unique and life changing to give them.
And so the words written by St.Paul to the Christians in Thessalonica and spoken to us in this Mass have great importance for all of us: Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more.
As our motto states, we are to “Love the Lord with all your mind.” We are called to grow in our faith; grow in the knowledge of our faith and grow in the way we live our faith. For that is the treasure of our Catholic belief and practice.
All of us involved in Catholic education, not only teachers, but everyone, build up and strengthen the culture that makes our schools unique. In our schools our students are taught the meaning and the reason for loving and respecting one another. And they are taught this by teachers who love and respect them.
During his recent visit to South America, Pope Francis said: “it is necessary to practice love not on the basis of ideas or concepts, but rather on the basis of genuine personal encounter. We do not love concepts or ideas; we love people.” (talk to Movements)
Pope Francis has spoken often of this “culture of encounter.” Our schools become places where this culture of encounter is discovered. Where love of one another is lived in an atmosphere of personal encounter and where our young people are taught to be ready to welcome the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of love, of beauty, of joy, by teachers who not only give lessons but who are the lessons.