With the end of summer, young people are returning to the classroom for another year of learning. A quality education is essential for a good, happy and productive life, and, of course, our schools play a crucial role in this. But it is only one role among many.
While schoolteachers have a certain expertise in academic subjects, it is actually parents who have – or are supposed to have – primary responsibility for the education of their children. This means more than making sure that kids do their homework. It means teaching them many critical life lessons that are needed in the formation of the person, including virtue, caring for one another, and fostering a love of learning to develop their intellectual, moral and physical gifts. Brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins have a role to play as well. Thus, the family is recognized as the first “school” for children.
Likewise, just as schools play only one part in education, so are the traditional school subjects only one component of needed learning. Math, reading, writing, history, the arts, economics, science, technology and vocational skills are all very useful for a well-rounded life – and are essential in obtaining a job to support yourself and your family, and in doing routine things like spending money wisely. And they can lead to one having a big house, fancy car, fame and fortune. But they are not really the key to a successful life.
We often think of success in material terms. But making money is not the measure of success. Even if we have all the riches of the world, there will still be something missing, and it profits a man or a woman nothing to gain the whole world, if his or her soul is not saved (Matthew 16:26).
Even more important than material things in happiness and being a true success is becoming closer to the transcendent reality that is God. Sadly, studies show that many, many people – even many who go to church every week – do not know or otherwise understand some fundamentals of the faith.
For example, many people do not know that the Eucharist is, in truth, the real presence of Jesus. This Blessed Sacrament is not just a symbol, but is in some mysterious way the actual Body and Blood of Christ. Every Sunday, there are also many people who do not receive Holy Communion because they have not been instructed or are otherwise prepared in the faith.
It is imperative then for parents to see that their children learn these lessons about being close to God – and that they grow in learning themselves. This can be done many ways, such as family prayer, reading the Bible, lessons from catechisms, and learning from the saints. In these ways, we learn to grow in holiness and be saints ourselves. In particular, “we are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves,” Pope Francis has said, and “let everything be open to God; turn to him in every situation” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 14, 15).
This was certainly the way of Saint Bernadette and we have much to learn from her. “I shall spend every moment loving. One who loves does not notice her trials; or perhaps more accurately, she is able to love them,” she teaches us.
Above all else, Bernadette saw the value of humbly joining her life to the life of the Lord, and the wisdom she imparted to her little sister who had a young daughter is a lesson for all parents: “You understand the care that you must take in bringing up this dear child. Teach her to know and love the good Lord and the Most Holy Virgin as soon as possible, to respect you and to abhor evil; by doing this, you will fulfill your responsibilities as parents,” Bernadette wrote. “Yes, children, love God well during this life. This is the greatest source of happiness on this earth and the only thing that will make us eternally happy in heaven.”
As vitally important as reading, writing, math and other academic subjects are, a life of faith, purity, love and truth is even more important in the greater scheme of things. In striving after these, Jesus gives Himself to us to dwell in our hearts. And there is no greater success in life than that.
After all, Bernadette recognized, “Where can you find a friend like Jesus? He knows how to sympathize with us and how to soothe our pain at the same time. Jesus, and Jesus alone, can do that. Let us love him and cling to him with all our hearts.”