Homily for the 175th Anniversary of Fordham Preparatory School
Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
24 June 2017
V. Rev. Timothy P. Kesicki, SJ
Several years ago, I visited St. Xavier School in Delhi, India. When I was asked to address the student body, I used an image which could link me to the Indian Jesuits whom they knew. I said, “Your Jesuit teachers are my brothers, and I have 17,000 Jesuit brothers throughout the world.” Just after the assembly, a young girl in the 7th standard (our 7th grade) came up to me and said, “You have 17,000 brothers? I would like to meet your mother!”
Jesuit education is a global mission with hundreds of schools, thousands of students and millions of alumni. This worldwide network can only exist because of each singular, distinct and cherished school. Just as one mother cannot bear 17,000 children, the name Jesuit cannot say everything about each school that bears our name. Today we celebrate the gift of Fordham Preparatory School, the witness of its many alumni, and the hope that you bring to this city and this world.
While I represent a noble network of Jesuit institutions in North America, I have not come to preach about the legacy of Jesuit education. We celebrate this 175th Anniversary at Liturgy on the nativity of St. John the Baptist, and on this Solemnity we tune our ears to God. The history of Fordham Prep, from its first years as St. John's College to the celebrated institution that it is today, is ultimately a story of faith, rooted in the saints who have come before us.
St. John the Baptist is very well known to us, especially his association with the narratives before Christmas, but very few schools claim him as their patron. In Catholic tradition, he is the patron saint of: builders, tailors, printers and people in need of healing, but is not linked to education. It goes without saying why he is the patron saint of baptisms – he did baptize our Lord Jesus – but he has another moniker which links him to the Society of Jesus. He is celebrated as the Patron Saint of Conversions. When one remembers the story of our founder, Saint Ignatius Loyola, and his first companions, there would not be a Jesuit Order without the great fruit of Conversion. God is speaking to us through today’s saint to help us understand the meaning and the hope of this celebration.
Now St. John the Baptist was not known for his tact or diplomacy. In the 3rd chapter of Matthew’s Gospel he calls the Pharisees and the Sadducees, “You brood of vipers.” How would you like to solicit a donation from him for the endowment fund? And his diet of locusts and wild honey wouldn’t be popular in your cafeteria. John the Baptist was a prophet, his words often made people uncomfortable, he broke through their comfort zones and called them to something greater – conversion to faith. Ultimately, your mission breaks through similar barriers and calls students to conversion.
A couple of years ago Pope Francis summed up the prophetic message of John the Baptist with three words: Prepare, Discern and Believe. Let’s look at each of these, remembering that this school began on this solemnity:
“Prepare ye the Way of the of the Lord” is John’s cry and it announced the coming of Christ. Preparing the way, paving the path, and finding God are foundational to this school. Anyone who has ever taught knows that this requires an immense amount of preparation, patience and personal care.
Contrary to popular opinion, not all Jesuits are great teachers. I knew of one who came to this realization when he heard himself screaming to an unruly bunch of sophomores, “This class is out of control, now put me down!” Some thought that his students did not belong in a Jesuit High School. How wrong they are. We don’t accept Men for Others we form them into Men for Others and this requires a great deal of preparation. The word Preparatory is in the very name of your school, but let us never reduce this to college matriculation. Yes, you are College prep, but on this feast, we recognize that even more importantly you “Prepare the way of the Lord.” It is a journey that begins with: study and discipline; prayer and hard work; athleticism, aestheticism and many, many things in between. And the goal, which we all seek is preparation for the vocation that God has for each of your students
The Gospel of Luke tells the beautiful story of the Visitation, and according to St. Luke, John the Baptist was blessed to be the cousin of Jesus. It might seem like this was a simple family affair, but John did not benefit from any insider-knowledge that his cousin was the Messiah. There were many prophets to choose from, and he had to discern who was God’s Son.
Your mission is to prepare young men so that in all things they might choose God. And only God knows how many competing idols they must choose from. When I was in high school, we had a few channels on one television-set and a rotary-dial phone to distract us. Today there is no limit to what competes for their attention. Saint Ignatius Loyola did not want us to take students out of this world, he wanted us to form them in this world so that they might discern between what leads nowhere and what leads to God. Your mission is to prepare them to discern well, so that their choices help them to achieve their fullest potential.
Jesus had a way of behaving which was so very different from what John had imagined. Just before his death in prison, John is filled with doubt and sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the chosen one. It’s safe to say that up until his beheading, John had doubts. The confidence that he had as a prophet turned to timidity as a martyr. Belief is not easy. John testifies to this fact. In the end, he took a leap of faith and suffered a humiliating death for his faith.
St. John the Baptist, like many great saints, suffered the pains of doubt. If we dare to form students in the faith, they will face doubt. How they emerge from their disbelief will say everything about what they do believe.
One of the hardest lessons to teach a student is that he will suffer. We so want to shower them with hope and blessings that we underestimate the power of defeat. But isn’t defeat often the very crucible where true disciples are formed? We don’t have to create hardship for our students, it will find them. We are called to witness to the faith during these hardships.
It is clear why Archbishop John Hughes chose June 24th in 1841 as the day to found this school. St. John the Baptist, the patron conversion, emerges as a most inspiring teacher. Through prophecy, suffering and faith, he called his listeners to the fullness of Christ’s teaching. In the end, is that not what we celebrate on this 175th anniversary? May this institution which has formed excellent disciples for nearly two centuries, continue this great mission. And may we who share in its legacy commit ourselves to do the same.