Like St. Matthew, teachers in Catholic schools bring the Lord to their students and expand on who he is, and who we are.
Sept. 21 is the Church’s celebration of the Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist. How coincidental that, a few days ago, I was conversing with one of my father’s real estate colleagues in their office when she learned that I was a veteran theology teacher at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, and she eventually asked me, “So, what is your favorite book of the Bible?” Truth be told, although I have asked this question of others frequently, this was the first time that anyone ever asked it of me. Fortunately, like one of my apt students with a hand at the ready to jolt upward with a response, I was able to eagerly share with her that it was the Gospel of Matthew. Perhaps, in the coming paragraphs, you will note how the reality of me being a theology teacher fits in appropriately with that preference.
Saint Matthew has always been a rather curious figure in my theological purview. When I was younger and taking religion classes throughout elementary and high school, I did not understand what the big dilemma was with Matthew being a tax collector. Later, as that first cataclysmic April 15 approached, and the tragedy of having to give the government an annual interest-free loan set in, I understood that much more what the issue was. As I frequently remind my students, when Jesus chose his twelve Disciples, they came from a variety of backgrounds, and far from being professional theologians (constituting no slight, of course, to my fellow professional theologians), many of them were frankly in positions that were not as highly respected: whether from the likely poverty of a fisherman to the social marginalization of an icky tax collector working for the Roman occupiers, Jesus’ divinely-selected starting line-up did not exactly come from the upper echelons of polite society. (As a digression, the factor of that historical tragedy of Judas [Iscariot] is the material for a separate discussion, although for the time being we affirm that his eternal lot really was his own incorrect choice, based on his free will, eventually becoming diametrically opposed to Christ’s objectives.) Yet, Matthew had an enduring gift: the gift of making connections.
When we look at the four canonical Gospels, we see that each had its own author, time period, theme and audience, among other characteristics. The Gospel of Matthew adeptly indicates how Jesus should be regarded as “the New Moses,” in light of his fulfillment of the Mosaic Law. Chapter 1 features Jesus’ genealogy, emphasizing how he is the promised Son of David. Chapter 2 features the Holy Family’s escape from Herod’s grasp and flight to Egypt, along with other allusions to Old Testament typology. Chapters 5 through 7, which begin with the Beatitudes, feature a wealth of Jesus’ moral teachings and indications that the Messiah, as “the Law” himself, is able to explicate the wider scope of the Mosaic legal structure. This theme continues throughout all 28 chapters of the Gospel according to Matthew.
Now to the overarching point: teachers in Catholic schools are inherently tasked with using their gifts to make evangelization-laden connections such as Matthew did, bringing the Lord to their students and expanding on who he is, and who we are subsequently. When I think back to my experience as a student at Saint Mary of the Assumption School in Upper Marlboro (Class of 1996) and Bishop McNamara High School (Class of 2000) within the Archdiocese of Washington Catholic schools specifically and the American Catholic educational system broadly, it was far from merely my theology teachers – who were invariably faithful to the Magisterium and social teachings of the Catholic Church – who lived out the mission of Catholic education. It was my science teachers, my English teachers, my math teachers, and so many other figures throughout the community, who embraced and lived their faith openly, that planted those seeds of faith in such a way that, even though my own faith wavered for a few years during college, their faithful example stuck with me and those seeds eventually germinated, encouraging my return to the practice of the Catholic faith toward the end of my college years.
Although my teachers of subjects other than theology were not necessarily professional theologians, their dedication to bringing the Gospel into their respective Catholic school communities helped me to make necessarily greater connections between matters of faith across the curriculum. Perhaps Saint Matthew, as a tax collector, was thus a mathematician who was able to use his gifts to “add things up,” if you will. As a relevant aside, this Sept. 23 marks one year since the release of my [honestly expectedly] prominent book Called to Teach: Daily Inspiration for Catholic Educators (Ave Maria Press, 2016). In this book, I encourage my fellow colleagues in Catholic education to look for the opportunities to connect the Law of the Lord with their classroom lessons. Such opportunities abound, particularly in light of an excerpt from another favorite biblical book of mine, the Psalms: “In your statutes I take delight” (Psalm 119:16). Saint Matthew definitely rose to this occasion, and taught others to do likewise.
All of those responsible for passing along the faith in a ministerial capacity, whether as school teachers in Catholic schools, professors in Catholic institutions of higher education, institutional administrators, catechists, clergy, religious and many others, can take heart in how Jesus called Matthew away from his own predilections and presuppositions of what constitutes “the good life” of money, worldly possessions, immorality and unjust networks of power, toward what actually comprises “the best life,” with the simplest of commands: “Follow me” (Matthew 9:9). And Matthew responded affirmatively, relying on his talents and abilities to further the Lord’s divine message and make those vital links to the Good News that students – really, disciples – have required for the good of the soul over the course of the last nearly two thousand years. And, despite the challenges that the 21st century worldly ways have presented, we ought to follow Matthew’s example in continuing to strive to do so.
In light of our celebration of Saint Matthew, Apostle, Evangelist, Martyr (recalling the ultimate price that he paid for professing his faith in Christ), and faithful instructor of how Jesus is the true Teacher par excellence, I close with a quotation from Blessed Father Basile Moreau, founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross. (Please bear in mind that Blessed Basile’s ministry centered on restoring Catholic education to those on the societal margins throughout France in the wake of the secularizing offenses against the free practice of Catholicism during the French Revolution.) Reflecting on the “lessons” that Saint Matthew offered, explaining how Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophecies throughout the Old Testament, we can likewise gain inspiration from Blessed Basile’s words from within his Letters: “Our sublime, but difficult, mission should be fulfilled with that happy blending of gentleness and firmness, prudence and vigilance, which is the secret of all successful education.” Saint Matthew the Apostle, pray for us!