One of the great tasks of life is to learn and become who we are to be. And we all know that this struggle to discover and establish one’s identity is especially acute during adolescence.
Your students often try on several identities as they struggle to find themselves; we call it “going through a phase.” Many enter college not knowing what they want to do with their lives and end up changing majors several times. Who we are is partly given to us and partly the result of our own choices.
Our students’ parents, of course, are the single greatest influence — and then there is the influence of friends and the influence of inner turmoil and life experiences, but these do not, in the end, give us our identity. Our identity is given to us by God, not merely chosen by us. This God-given identity only truly becomes ours when we give ourselves over fully to all that is entailed becoming what God has called us to be.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples about his identity: “Who do you say that I am?” Some thought he was John the Baptist, Elijah or some other prophet, but Peter has discovered the truth about Jesus’ identity. He said: “You are the Christ of God,” the Messiah. But Peter still did not understand that being the Christ will 1) require Jesus to embrace a cross of suffering, rejection and death, 2) leading to his resurrection three days later.
After Pentecost, Peter and the others began to learn that following Jesus will require them to take the same path he took, 1) embracing their own cross of suffering, rejection and death, 2) leading to their resurrection one day as well. And then, in the verses immediately following the passage we have for today’s Gospel, Jesus summarizes this fundamental truth of our identity as Christians: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
For you Catholic educators, the path of Christian faithfulness requires that you do far more than merely execute lesson plans, control your students and hand out grades. You don’t just instruct your students; you also form them and help them deal with personal issues. You inspire them and motivate them to realize their full human potential.
In a real sense, you parent them, especially those students who do not receive good parenting at home. And so, this nurturing role is fundamental to your identity. And so naturally, in order for you to be teachers truly worthy of the name, you have to give yourselves over fully to all that is entailed in becoming the kind of teachers that God has called you to be. And like with every other Christian way of life, there are crosses to bear that are an inescapable part of your role as Catholic educators.
Forming children is not easy, especially students who are troubled in some way. So why does God entrust these situations to us? In order to teach you self-sacrificing love and thereby turn you into a saint.
What Jesus says about faithfulness, in general, applies especially to you Catholic educators: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” And so, we pray for you that the Lord may use your crosses to turn you into persons of self-sacrificing love, effective instruments of God’s saving love for all those God has entrusted to your care.
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily Sept. 30 during the Catholic Educators Professional Day Mass in Little Rock.
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