Bishop O’Connell’s homily from the 2019 Catholic Schools Mass
The following homily was giving by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M. during the 2019 Catholic Schools Mass, Oct. 10 in St. Robert Bellarmine, Cocathedral:
Did Jesus ever go to school? The Bible doesn’t say so we cannot be sure. Did you ever wonder about that? The New Testament does tell us that Jesus could read, something he had to learn somewhere. The New Testament also suggests that Jesus could write, again something he had to learn somewhere. Jesus also knew the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, since he quoted it often. Where did he learn the Jewish religion and all its rules and practices?
People who know the history of the ancient world tell us that education in Jesus’ time began in the home and was the responsibility of the father and mother. There was no real school system as there is today but there was usually a school attached to the synagogue where children would learn the scripture and the laws of the Jewish faith. The emphasis was on memorization since not too many books were available, especially in a small town like Nazareth. As far as other academic subjects were concerned, these were learned from adults who served as mentors to the children. Boys usually learned a trade from their fathers and continued their businesses while girls learned so many other things from their mothers. The New Testament Gospels call Jesus the “son of a carpenter.”
So, we cannot say for sure that Jesus “went to school” like we do but we have no reason to doubt that his early life in Nazareth was not much different from other kids of his day. When we read about Jesus in the Bible, however, he does seem to be well educated, probably a combination of things he learned from his parents, from the synagogue, from people of his time. St. Luke tells us that “the child grew and became strong, increasing in wisdom and the grace of God was with him (Luke 2: 40).”
There is a great story told in St. Luke’s Gospel that after one of their annual family trips to the temple in Jerusalem, the holy city, Jesus’ Mother Mary and her husband Joseph lost track of Jesus when he was about 12 for three days, each one thinking he was with the other. Can you imagine what that must have been like? I remember once getting separated from my parents on the boardwalk at the shore. I couldn’t find my parents for a couple hours and I was scared to death. But St. Luke tells us that when Jesus’ parents found him, not only was he calm as can be but he was “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers (Luke 2: 46-47).” Very interesting for a boy who didn’t have much formal school like us. And St. Luke ends his story telling us that Jesus went home to Nazareth with his parents and “grew in increased in wisdom, age and grace before God and man (Luke 2: 52).”
In the synagogue schools, the rabbi not only taught their young students about the Hebrew scriptures and the laws and customs of their faith, but historians tells us they were also responsible for teaching about values and behavior, how to live in this world. Schools in the ancient Jewish world were not very organized but they did accomplish something important in the lives of young people.
Here we are today, two thousand years later, celebrating our Catholic schools which are very well organized and teach us so much and prepare us so well. Our schools are not small groups of children gathered in the synagogue as in Jesus’ day: they are real schools attached to our parish Churches or the Diocese with hundreds of young people attending. They have a curriculum in math and science, English and history, language arts and music, computer technology and so many other things important for our education. But, like the little synagogue schools in Jesus’ time, our Catholic schools have one most important subject that makes them different from public schools: our Catholic schools teach us our Catholic faith — they introduce us to Jesus Christ and to the Church he founded. They teach us Catholic values and behavior so that we are prepared to give witness to our faith, to live our faith, to make a difference in the world. My young sisters and brothers, our schools are different and we are different because of our faith and all that we are learning about it from the dedicated teachers who teach us so well. Believing in God, knowing Jesus, praying and going to Mass and preparing for the sacraments of penance, Holy communion and Confirmation, learning what the Church teaches and living and loving others because of our faith — that’s what makes us different, that’s what helps us see the world differently, through Jesus’ eyes, that’s what makes us treat one another differently as Jesus asks us to do. And that’s why we are here today in our Co-Cathedral, a very important Church in our Diocese, from so many different schools and parishes all over New Jersey. We are one, holy Catholic and apostolic Church together from pre-K through 12th grade. And the sacrifices that our wonderful parents make give us this great opportunity to learn our faith, to grow in wisdom, age and favor with God as did the boy Jesus.
Later on in his life, when Jesus himself as an adult was teaching in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, the Gospel of St. Matthew tells us that people asked, “Where did this man get this wisdom and power … isn’t he the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother Mary and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? … where did this man get all these things (Matthew 13: 54-55)?” True, we believe Jesus was God and his wisdom came from God but he was also man and he learned so much from the human life he lived, beginning at his mother Mary’s knee and his foster-father Joseph’s gentle instruction, continuing in the synagogue where he learned his Jewish faith.
As your Bishop, I believe that one day, people will be amazed at you, too. They will look at your lives and ask, where did they learn all these things? And, if you really work at growing in wisdom and in your faith now, you will be able to say later with joy and pride, “I learned all these things in Catholic school because “Catholic schools have it all.”