I am in Jasper with our priests for our annual assembly. This time last year I had a close encounter with a black bear on the Jasper golf course. It happened again Wednesday, only this time it was a grizzly! As our foursome came over the ridge of a long par five, we could see park rangers about two hundred yards ahead, waving at us to stop as they tried to get the bear off the course. Reminiscent of last year’s experience, the more they tried the closer the bear came toward us. Fortunately it did not come anywhere near as close as did his black-furred cousin twelve months ago. Nevertheless, the priests are having a field day with this. One even suggested I add a bear with a golf club to my coat of arms. Very funny. Such ready fraternal support is really touching.
The topic of our assembly this year was Catholic education. We heard from a lawyer who is an expert on the constitutional status of our schools, as well as from district superintendents, religious education consultants, a principal, a youth minister, a parish sacramental preparation coordinator and a priest who is a district chaplain. From their perspectives, as well as from those of the priests gathered from the Archdiocese of Edmonton and the Diocese of Prince George, the gift and challenge of Catholic education in our day was discussed. However, the foundational and guiding standpoint came not from ourselves but from the Sacred Scriptures. On the first full day of our Assembly we listened at Mass to a passage from the Acts of the Apostles (cf. Acts 11:19-26), which told of the reaction of Barnabas when he first arrived at Antioch. It recounted how Barnabas rejoiced because he “saw the grace of God”. He recognized God already at work among the people and witnessed their response to God’s saving love. The presence and action of God was the cause not only of his rejoicing but also of his pastoral work. He went for Paul and, upon returning with him to Antioch, taught the people in the ways of the Gospel. It is easy enough for us to focus upon the challenges in our schools. Instead we should discern first the grace of God at work in the hearts and lives of our young people. This transforms anxiety into hope and provides the impetus to teach the beauty and joy of the Christian life.
Sometimes adults feel so distant from the reality of young people today that they wonder if they really have any hope of connecting with them. It is true that youth inhabit “worlds” that might be foreign to adults and thus difficult to understand. (I recently held a “town hall session” with a group of senior high school students, and they told me of influential television shows and role models that I had never heard of!) Yet connection is possible because the needs of the human heart are universal. According to the education specialists, the greatest need of the youth they encounter is to know that they are loved and that they matter. It means a great deal to them for an adult to be present and manifest an interest in their lives. This is something we can all do. Our Catholic schools are a privileged place for this encounter to happen. We simply need to be more deliberate, committed and engaged in our schools to bring this about.
Our young people may not often meet a bear on a golf course, but they certainly do meet dangers every day, often without knowing it. We need think only of the variety of messages they receive daily through television, music videos and other media. Not all of those messages are healthy, and some are dangerous. Like the bears, the dangers are not easily scared away and sometimes, in spite of our efforts, still come close to our young. By working to ensure that our schools form an authentic Gospel culture we help them know that the One who loves and protects them draws even closer. In our schools we want them to know, love and follow Jesus Christ and experience the joy and peace that He wills for them. From the brief dialogue that we have been able to hold at Jasper among representatives of the various stakeholders in Catholic education, I am convinced of the desire we all share to foster that encounter with the Lord. I am looking forward very much to working together with our priests and with the officials engaged in Catholic education to build upon the good that is there by the grace of God, and to form our beloved youth to become adult disciples of the Lord.