The Diocese’s annual Education Conference for Catholic school teachers and administrators celebrated the educators for leading students to the Truth, and examined concrete ways to keep students firmly rooted in the faith.
Streamed live from the Diocesan Center in Harrisburg on Sept. 30, and via a video presentation with keynote speaker Father Robert Spitzer, S.J., the conference began with Holy Mass celebrated by Bishop Ronald Gainer.
In his homily, the bishop offered a quote from St. Jerome, a priest and Doctor of the Church whose Feast was celebrated that day: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
Bishop Gainer urged the educators to take to heart the quote from St. Jerome, who was a noted scholar and translator of Holy Scripture.
“My friends who are charged with teaching in our Catholic schools, who are in charge of administrating our Catholic schools, that quote should be foremost in our mind as we begin our Education Conference,” the bishop said. “Our schools are about encountering the person of Jesus Christ in the fullness of his Truth and in the fullness of the implications those Truths have for our daily lives.”
Reflecting on the Gospel Reading from Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, in which St. Paul writes, “All Scripture is inspired by God, and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” Bishop Gainer said Paul’s words are applicable for Catholic school educators today.
“No matter what subject, no matter what area you’re responsible for in our schools, Scripture is useful for your teaching. It’s only in the Gospels that we have the first-hand picture of the life and the teachings, the death and Resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ,” the bishop said.
“There are so many versions of the truth that we can fall prey to – your truth and my truth. There is One Truth and, for us, Truth is a person, not a concept, not an idea, not an intellectual content. For us, Scripture is not simply a printed book. It’s a living person: Jesus,” he said.
The four qualities of Scripture that St. Paul presents are also the goal of Catholic schools, Bishop Gainer remarked. “Teaching, reputation, correction, good works – these are the goals of our Catholic schools, to be formed ourselves, to encounter Christ and to be able to be in communion with those we are entrusted to teach.”
The conference’s keynote speaker was Father Robert Spitzer, S.J., president and founder of the Magis Center. The center gives credible, scientifically based evidence for God, the soul and Jesus, and has developed modules for middle and high school students designed to ground them firmly in the faith.
Father Spitzer, host of the weekly EWTN show “Father Spitzer’s Universe,” centered his keynote address on “The 7 Essentials,” a series of PowerPoint modules teachers can present to students that address their questions and doubts about the faith and make a compelling case for the Catholic faith today.
“Our young people are leaving the Church at an astonishingly high rate. Forty-two percent of practicing Catholics in high school will leave not just the Catholic Church, but belief in God,” Father Spitzer said, citing a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center.
Of those 42 percent, half of them say they leave because they think science and faith are contradictory. Others say they stop practicing the faith because they can’t understand why an all-loving God would permit suffering in their personal lives and throughout the world, he said.
“The critical time when they’re going to make a decision about the faith is age 13. However, we have until 18 to turn them around,” Father Spitzer said. “Just one college student firm in the faith will be a leader among their Catholic peers on campus, and can impact the lives of 20 others.”
“The 7 Essentials” modules, interactive PowerPoint presentations designed for middle and high school classes, address seven areas where students are likely to stray if they don’t receive concrete answers. These topics are “Evidence of a soul from medical studies,” “Evidence of God from science,” “Evidence of God from philosophy,” “Historicity and the Resurrection of Jesus,” “Why Be Catholic,” “Levels of happiness,” and “Why God allows suffering.”
“A weakening religious belief can be detrimental to young people suffering from anxiety and depression,” said Father Spitzer, who pointed to studies showing that non-religiously affiliated individuals have much higher rates of substance abuse and family tensions, and double the rate of suicide, than their religiously-affiliated peers.
“Our objective is to give our modules to middle schoolers so they have a great foundation by the time they get to ninth grade,” he said. He mentioned a master-teacher program to train teachers in a senior capstone course on the modules, which is currently in the works.
“We want them to have conviction in the faith by the time they get to college,” he said.
“The more we can help our kids, the better off they’re going to be. I want to see our kids prosper and get to heaven. I want to see them respond to the secular culture that mires them in suicide, depression and substance abuse. I want them to be set free, and I know you do to, or you wouldn’t be an educator in a Catholic school,” Father Spitzer concluded.
Following the keynote presentation, Daniel Breen, Diocesan Superintendent of Catholic Schools and Secretary for Education, offered information on the state of Diocesan schools, which currently enroll some 9,000 students and employ 1,800 educators.
He recognized this year’s awardees – including Golden Apple Award recipients, 20-year teachers, 10-year principals and new principals – and recent milestones in Catholic education, including upgrades to technology across the board and the availability of $4 million in Neumann Scholarship funds.
“Catholic school teachers have always been doing heroic work. What’s different now is, the heroism is seen and it’s more recognized. There are eyes on us because our schools are open and so many others are not,” he said.
“You’re heroic in your willingness to do more – more work and more difficult work – and heroic in standing up for the Catholic faith,” Breen said. “In this current context, you’re in the limelight. You’re teaching five days a week when so many schools are closed for in-person instruction. Even while you have your own concerns for your health, you’re providing an atmosphere of joy and meeting the emotional and learning needs of your students while keeping them safe.”
“In my own name, I offer profound and heartfelt thanks to our teachers,” he said.
By Jen Reed
The Catholic Witness
(Photos by Rachel Bryson, The Catholic Witness.)