By Maureen Smith
MADISON – More than 300 educators for the Catholic Schools in the diocese gathered on Tuesday, September 8, at St. Joseph High School for a day of formation and reflection on this year’s school theme: Teaching Everyone About Mercy (TEAM) and the Catechetical theme for the year in the U.S.: Safeguarding the Dignity of Every Human Person.
The Office of Catholic Education partnered with the Office of Faith Formation for the event featuring Paulist Father Bruce Nieli. Father Nieli, who recently moved from Memphis to Austin, Texas, is a lively preacher and missionary who wrapped his presentation around his own experiences, some of his heroes and scriptures to inspire the group. He sang, played the guitar, danced and laughed for the entire day.
“He was a dynamic and charismatic speaker and his message was clear and concise,” said Clara Isom, principal for Holly Springs Holy Family School. “I was so thrilled because he grabbed our attention and really gave us something to listen to. He was scripturally sound and he reminded us that we have to be servants to all who enter our schools,” added Isom.
She said that while the schools are Catholic, they often serve diverse populations in terms of faith, but the mission remains the same. She added that Father Nieli offered his message to teachers and administrators of all backgrounds. “His message was pluralistic and inclusive. He gave us something we could feed on — something to think about individually and as a group,” said Isom.
This is the first time in a couple of years that the Office of Catholic Education has offered a day for all of the teachers. Groups carpooled and caravaned from every school in the system. “We felt like this would be a great way to enhance our work in strengthening Catholic identity at our schools,” said Catherine Cook, superintendent. “It also gave us a chance to get everyone together for fellowship, which is always a good thing, and we knew Father Bruce (Nieli) would get us all pumped up about the year,” added Cook.
The day started with Mass to mark the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. Bishop Joseph Kopacz concelebrated with retired Bishop William Houck. “We were delighted to have both Bishop Kopacz and Bishop Houck join us for the whole day,” said Cook.
Karla Luke, the coordinator for Operational and Support Services, said all of the schools have been asked to bring the Jubilee Year of Mercy into their schools in some way. “Planning this day was led by the Holy Spirit, that’s for sure,” said Luke. “We wanted everyone to leave that day with a spirit of unity that no matter what our background — religious, ethnic, socio-economic or otherwise — we can realize we are all people of God, people of Christ and we have a duty and responsibility to one another. We wanted to wrap that into the catechetical theme of Safeguarding the Dignity of the Human Person and the Jubilee Year of Mercy,” said Luke.
Pope Francis has declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy to start in December. The year is focused on the mercy of God and includes an emphasis on reconciliation and renewal. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops selects a theme for catechists each year which is introduced on Catechetical Sunday in September.
Father Nieli spoke at length about letting the Holy Spirit into the lives of the teachers. He told personal stories of how it has enhanced his own life, for example, he was in New York just after the 9/11 attacks and wanted to visit the site. He asked to be let into the cleanup area and happened to be there when the largest collection of bodies was discovered. Rescuers asked him to bless those bodies. He had not planned on being there, he was not supposed to be the clergy person on duty and he had no connection to the recovery operation, but he let the Holy Spirit take the lead and began to pray. He felt called to use the Prayer of St. Francis with its call for peace and reconciliation.
He also told the story of speaking to children in a school in Ferguson, Mo., about Our Lady of Guadalupe and talked about being inspired by Sister Thea Bowman. By the end of the day, he had the whole audience on their feet clapping and singing.
“We got a lot of positive feedback from the day and we hope to do it again,” said Cook.
By Maureen Smith