Thomas J. Scirghi, SJ
Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral September 17, 2016
We scatter the seeds of a Catholic Education
Luke 8: 4-15
For the celebration of the Dodransbicentennial
Whoever has ears ought to hear. But they just don’t get it. When will they understand? The disciples worried: Jesus had been preaching for a while. He had visited many towns and spoke to so many people. Yet, relatively few had responded. Too few seem to get it. The disciples worried that Jesus’ message is not getting through. So Jesus told this parable of a farmer at work in his field. He hoped to calm their disappointment over the meager response to his preaching.
I’m sure many of us here can relate to this concern. You parents worry about your children and what they have learned from you so far. They are beautiful, to be sure, yet seem so thick at times. Administrators hope that their vision and values seep into the program. And we teachers: don’t we worry this way, especially at exam time? At the time of finals, our “field” may seem fallow … we’re in for a famine. They just don’t get it, or so it seems.
With this frustration in mind, Jesus talks about a sower sowing seed. Notice how wasteful he is, scattering the seed in all directions, even into the wind. Some of it falls on the path, or on rocks, among the thorns, and some lands on good soil. It looks careless, like so much will be wasted. Would an agri-business, like Monsanto, allow this today? But this is the way they planted in Jesus’ day. The sower knew that the seed that fell on good ground would compensate abundantly for all that was lost. God operates with a similar carelessness. Remember the parable of the Prodigal Son: how the father showered mercy on his son. It seemed wasteful to some, especially to the older brother. Jesus’ advice is: Don’t count, just keep scattering the seed.
I remember, about thirty years ago, during the winter months, I was preparing for an evening of recollection with a parish group. I had come to know these people well and I was looking forward to the evening. All was set, but then a big snowstorm hit and snow blanketed the area. Very few people showed up that night. As I prepared to greet the group I must have looked disappointed at the low turn-out. A wise older Jesuit brother sidled up to me and offered some advice: “Just remember Tom, Jesus said, ‘feed my sheep’ don’t count ‘em.” Point well taken.
Beware of how you measure success in the Lord’s field. Trust that what you do is getting through. Maybe not according to your time line or calculations, but it will follow God’s plan. Trust. Consider this: When Jesus preached this parable to the crowd in Palestine, there must have been olive trees dotting the landscape. All he had to do was point to an olive tree to make his point. You see, it takes about twelve years for an olive tree to grow and bear fruit – twelve years. That is about the time it takes a boy to finish prep school, complete a university degree, and then earn a professional degree . . . twelve years.
So the grower needs to be patient. Twelve years of planting, pruning and watering before he sees an olive. And once the trees are grown, they are among the sturdiest trees in the valley. True, they’re not the most attractive. They do not stand tall like the stately oak, or sway like the slender palm. No. They look gnarly, but they’re sturdy. And they may last thousands of years. Some olive trees in Galilee today are three thousand years old, and they are still bearing fruit. The olive tree gives me hope for my students. Education takes time; I need to practice the patience of a disciple.
Jesuits have always seen education as parallel to discipleship. For Ignatius of Loyola, after his conversion, when he developed his relationship with the Lord, he considered Jesus Christ to be his tutor. The way a tutor works with a student – instructing, guiding, encouraging, sometimes scolding – this is the way Ignatius believed Jesus Christ dealt with him. And the more Ignatius learned to listen to the Lord, the more aware he became of the presence of God in the world – all around him. Then, when he went to study at the University of Paris, his education in the Liberal Arts opened up more of the world to God’s presence. Our education opens us up to the presence of God all around us. Jesuit education should prepare us to meet the world and to greet the Lord, and to find purpose in this life. We know who we are as we stand with all people and before God. A Catholic education makes us good citizens and faithful disciples.
So we come here, in this historical moment – our dodransbicentennial – to celebrate Catholic education: the marriage of faith and reason. Education is a powerful tool for freedom. It must be powerful because whenever an elite group wants to oppress a minority, they suppress their education. Fr. Devron addressed this problem in his homily for the first of these celebrations on June 24. He described how, at the time of the founding of the Prep, the Nativist movement was rising. Because of them Catholics experienced discrimination in the public schools of New York City. They were ridiculed for their faith. As a result, half of the Catholic children in New York City had no education. Their parents would not send them into these hostile and overcrowded public schools. The Catholic School system freed these children.
Education frees us. Why do we call it the “liberal arts?” It has nothing to do with partisan politics. “Liberal,” from the Latin “librere,” means to liberate. A good education frees us to reach the potential to which God has called us. It frees us to be fully human and fully alive.
But we are not completely free yet. We still find an oppression in education. It’s not the violence of 175 years ago, but something more subtle. Today many would prefer to ignore religion; they consider it the stuff of superstition; they deem it irrelevant. But to be sure, there are many “seekers” today. There are many young people who are looking for some spirituality. I heard it just yesterday in my freshman class, a course called “Faith and Critical Reason.” It’s an introduction to theology. I asked my students – twenty of them – to prepare a brief, three minute presentation on one idea learned so far in this class. The students came well prepared . . . well, all but the last one. She took the podium and then explained, with great emotion, that she was not going to give the speech she prepared. (I held my breath and braced myself.) Then she started to cry. She said to the class, “I’ve been inspired by you.” She said, “On the first day of class, I told Fr. Scirghi that I have no faith. I was baptized Catholic but that’s it. My family doesn’t practice any religion. So I have nothing. But now I listen to you: Zachary talks about St. Augustine; I never read the Confessions. James talks about Thomas Aquinas. Some of you talked about Ignatius. And you compare them to your own experience of faith. It makes me think of what I’m missing. Isn’t that why we are here at Fordham: to find the place for faith in our lives?” The class applauded. I could not have said it any better.
Our Catholic education frees us and prepares us to meet the world and to greet the Lord. So Church, scatter your seeds where you may, and let them fall where they will. And do not bother to count, but trust God to yield a bountiful harvest. Amen.