Since arriving over the 2016 Christmas break, I have been warmly welcomed by the Catholic educational community here in Northwest Arkansas, as well as by the educational leaders in the greater diocese, including those at Mount St. Mary’s and Catholic High. Two weeks ago, I attended my first retreat for the principals of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Little Rock.
The diocese that I now belong to is much smaller than the archdiocese of Galveston-Houston that I just left, but both have within them unique communities. In Houston, I was able to participate with teachers throughout the diocese who taught at all different levels, undergraduate, high school and grade school. The archdiocese of Galveston-Houston grounded me spiritually and in Catholic education.
In my new diocese, I am grateful for the leadership and openness of Mrs. Vernell Bowen, the Superintendent of Education for the Diocese of Little Rock and for her staff in welcoming me into the school leadership community.
The retreat was led by the Fr. Erik Pohlmeier, Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Little Rock. He focused on how we as school leaders should live out the New Evangelization of Christ's "Sermon on the Mount" found in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7.
As we explored living our professions while engaging in evangelization, Fr. Erik guided us by reflecting on three individuals: Jesus Christ, St. Augustine of Hippo, and Pope Francis.
Christ set forth his teachings of engagement and love through the Sermon on the Mount showing us how to live a life that is dedicated to and pleasing to God, free from hypocrisy, full of love, grace, wisdom and discernment. St. Augustine teaches, reminds, and models for us in our “fallenness” that when we turn toward Christ he receives us with mercy and charity. Still fallen we struggle in the continuity of engaging Our Lord until our "hearts rest in him."
Fr. Erik spent much of the first talks focusing on the teachings of Pope Francis, calling us to evangelize as Christ did through engagement and love. Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation on Evangelization (Evangelli Gaudium, 265) clarifies why “Jesus’ whole life, His way of dealing with the poor, His actions, His integrity, His simple daily acts of generosity and finally His complete self-giving, is precious and reveals the mystery of His divine life. ...We were created for what the Gospel offers us: friendship with Jesus and love of our brothers and sisters.”
Fr. Erik reminded us that in our profession as teachers we may be inclined to focus on those students “on the edge”. Rightfully so, we are to engage all where they are, but it is those closest to us that we may inadvertently neglect. Without a misstep of doubt, he urged us to remind those closest to us that they were personally loved and to bring them to Christ to feel his mercy. It is through our actions of reaching out to all students that we say “yes” to the Lord and thus we become selfless as Christ humbled himself even to the point of the cross.
Pope Francis stated that discipleship is the identity or calling card of the Christian, lived out in one key adjective — welcoming. “We might,” he urges, "say that a Christian is someone who has learned to welcome others, to show hospitality,” and “when we are weary or worn down by our efforts to evangelize, it is good to remember that the life Jesus holds out to us responds to the deepest needs of people.”
This school year, as we welcome new and returning teachers, families, and students, let us meet them where they are, build friendships, and walk together to become closer to Christ.