When I started high school at Walsh Jesuit in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, I was pretty sure I had the whole religion thing down. I grew up in a Catholic family and had attended Catholic schools since kindergarten. I went to Mass every weekend and on holy days, had taken religion classes every day for years and witnessed examples of a strong faith among my family members. What more was there to learn?
In his book Rediscover Catholicism, Matthew Kelly writes: “Catholicism is not a football game, but St. Paul once compared the Christian life to athletics…. The very best coaches will tell you that teams that win championships are those that focus on the basics, and master them together.” I had a good foundation in the building blocks of our faith when I entered the ninth grade.
But thanks to my experience at Walsh Jesuit, I now appreciate that being a Catholic means more than knowing about our faith. Catholic education is about mastering the basics of our faith so we can use them in our lives together as a team, a school, a church. I have personally witnessed how such an education can help students not only to understand the basic teachings of our faith, but also to master them through their application in our lives in order to stimulate spiritual growth and promote justice. Football players practice everyday; so should Catholics.
Faith in Action
The summer after my junior year I went on a service trip to El Salvador with 13 students and two teachers. This experience was life-changing and a concrete example of our faith translated into action. I remember being overwhelmed upon arriving in San Salvador by the poverty we encountered everywhere. It was hard for me to comprehend that real people with real lives and real challenges lived in such difficult conditions. And once I began to put names and faces to the poverty I was witnessing, that feeling sank in deeper. Each day our group served in one of two villages, either doing construction work or helping out at a daycare center. As we performed service and lived in solidarity with the people, we quickly learned that those impoverished families gave us more than we could possibly offer in return. They taught us that true happiness is not found in material items, but in enjoying the people around you and the little things in life that we do have, like a simple conversation or a game of soccer.
One encounter in particular brought this lesson home to me. During a visit to a nearby orphanage, I was immediately drawn to a young, quiet boy named José Luis. We talked, played together and did crafts throughout the day. Several times I asked him how old he was, but my question was met with silence. He eventually responded, No sé (“I don’t know”). This confused me at first. He certainly seemed old enough to know his own age. Later, a nun working at the orphanage informed me that often times children are simply left at the doors of the orphanage by parents, so they grow up unsure of their exact age. That this young boy lacked something so basic, something I so much took for granted—a birthday—made me question how people with so little could be so happy, and why many Americans with an abundance of possessions are not. Clearly God is present in all of his children, yet on that day José Luis was more than an orphan with whom I was fortunate enough to spend time; he was a revelation that service is not an option but the very way in which God shows himself to us.
My experience in El Salvador solidified what I had heard many times in the classroom—that service is an important part of our faith. Learning what Jesus and the church have to say about serving others is essential. But imitating Jesus by going out to the poor is even more important; it is how we truly live out our Catholic faith. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., former superior general of the Society of Jesus, once said:
Solidarity is learned through “contact” rather than “concepts.” When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change. Personal involvement with innocent suffering, with the injustice others suffer, is the catalyst for solidarity which then gives rise to intellectual inquiry and moral reflection.”
These observations perfectly describe the value of service that I have both learned through my Catholic education and actively practiced through my service experiences. My heart was certainly touched by my direct experience with the people of El Salvador, and because of it, my mind has been challenged to change.
On our final night in El Salvador, our group pondered the following question posed by our teachers: “How do you ensure that an experience like this does not simply stand as an isolated act of charity but inspires a lifetime of working for justice?” One answer we came up with was Project Jaimé, named for a boy we had all grown particularly close to. Through Project Jaimé, we sold bracelets made in El Salvador at our school and used the money to sponsor his education. The words of the prophet Micah challenge us: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8). Project Jaimé is our way of both putting the basics of our faith into action and paying forward the opportunities we were given in order to promote justice.
Although my service trip provided me with an amazing opportunity to live out my faith, traveling thousands of miles from home is not required. During my senior year, I participated in an Advent retreat that took place every Monday afternoon right at school. Together with fellow students and teachers, we took time to make ready our hearts for the coming of Jesus on Christmas, and examined more deeply the four pillars of Advent: hope, preparation, joy and love. We spoke about those people in our lives who embodied these pillars and how we personally planned to prepare for Christmas.
The lesson I took from these gatherings was that prayer and our relationship with God is a two-way street, like any other relationship. Many times we forget to listen to what God has to say; rather, we get caught up in prayers of petition or thanksgiving and talk at God as if he is only there to listen. Through this sharing group we learned more about our faith and the Advent season; but we also modeled how we must take action together in order to grow in our faith, a value extremely important to Walsh Jesuit and part of the legacy of St. Ignatius Loyola. The fact that so many students were interested in taking time out of their busy days to be with God and deepen their faith demonstrates how a Catholic education shapes students to apply the teachings they learn in the classroom to their daily lives.
In every season and in every place, students at my school have opportunities to live out our faith. There are the four-day Kairos retreats, modeled after the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, or Labre, a program in which we share food and fellowship with the homeless in cities small and large. We can assist the elderly in nursing homes and tutor inner-city youth. Not only did experiences like these strengthen my belief in the importance of actively practicing my faith; but they were also ways in which I have met God.
Mastering the basics of football is what wins championships, and mastering the basics of our faith so they can prompt us into action is how we advance on our spiritual journeys. Whether we are with an orphan child in El Salvador, a classmate on a retreat or a person living on the streets, I believe God is most visibly present when we act in his name for and with others, in the most basic ways.