Before classes began, 900 teachers reminded of ‘special call’

Photo Caption: Standing around the altar on the stage of the Peoria Civic Center, Bishop Jenky and priests who minister at Catholic schools concelebrate Mass at the Diocesan Teachers’ Institute.

By: By Jennifer Willems

Teaching is a daunting vocation and even Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, admits he trembles when he thinks of his responsibility as bishop.

“But you share in that awesome responsibility,” he told the 900 teachers from Catholic schools around central Illinois who attended the Diocesan Teachers’ Institute in Peoria on Aug. 12.

“We share in the Lord’s ministry of teaching the truth, of loving our neighbor, of calling people to conversion,” Bishop Jenky said. “If Jesus did that perfectly, I can tell you — starting with your bishop — we do it imperfectly. But we cannot wimp out from the struggle. And we know God is on our side.”

The earliest Diocesan Teachers’ Institute in recent memory, the event brought the educators to the Peoria Civic Center for a Mass in the theater concelebrated by Bishop Jenky and priests who minister at Catholic schools around the Diocese of Peoria. After lunch in the Civic Center Ballroom, they heard words of encouragement as well as challenge from Dr. Jim Rigg, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati who on Aug. 27 was named to the same position with the Archdiocese of Chicago.

The day closed with a presentation on pending school choice legislation in Springfield from Jerry Sanderson, associate superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Peoria.

Before he let them leave Mass, however, Bishop Jenky reminded the teachers and administrators that even as they struggle to help students master math or do well in sports, there is something more important they must do.

“The biggest struggle is the struggle for the salvation of their immortal souls, that they have an eternity of seeing God face to face, that they build their lives around the truth of the Gospel,” he said, adding that knowing and understanding their Catholic faith may be the greatest lesson of all.

Rigg began his remarks by removing any doubts the teachers may have had about what they are doing.

“To be a Catholic school teacher is to be in acceptance of a unique and special call,” he said. “You have been called to your particular school, to your group of students you will serve this year. You’ve been called for a particular and unique purpose. It is God’s plan that you are there.”

With Christ as the center of the school, their ultimate mission is “to teach, embody and witness the loving presence of Christ in the lives of your children.” This is harder than teaching math or reading or science or social studies, he said, because teaching is about more than knowledge.

“It’s about shaping people. Teaching is a service” to the students, to the school, to the community and to Christ, “by making him known, loved and served through the children under our care.”

Rigg encouraged them to continually form their own faith and to learn as much as they could about their communities, including the school families and their hopes and aspirations.

“We cannot effectively serve in ministry if we do not know who we serve,” he said. “This is not the community of 50 years ago, but the community of today. . . . Who is your prototype student? Who is your prototype family?”

Rigg also urged them to live out the New Evangelization with new methods and new ardor if they want to reach these new audiences. Acknowledging this isn’t easy, he said, “Don’t give up!”

“We have to stay fresh and optimistic and energized and evangelize,” he said. “We know Catholic education is the best way, other than faithful parenting, of raising children in the faith. We know that our schools get wonderful results and have for decades. . . . We know that our Catholic school graduates are more active in their faith, participate more frequently in the sacraments, pray more often, and contribute more to their parish in terms of time, talent and treasure.”

Noting that Catholic social and moral doctrine is seen as countercultural by society at large, Rigg said, “We need you now more than ever.”

Sanderson shared with the teachers and administrators a presentation prepared by Zachary Wichmann, director of government relations for the Catholic Conference of Illinois (CCI). In it, he made the case for the Quality Schools Tax Credit, which could pass during this legislative session.

To advance this policy proposal, CCI has joined the Illinois Kids Campaign. All six dioceses in Illinois and 150 Catholic schools, including the schools of the Diocese of Peoria, support this effort as do more than 80 community organizations, businesses and unions.

“This is the largest coalition supporting school choice that Illinois has ever had,” Sanderson said.

One component of the legislation would provide a tax credit of up to $250 for teachers who are buying classroom supplies with money out of their own pocket and not being reimbursed by their schools. Another would increase the Education Expense Tax Credit from $500 to $1,000 for 25 percent of eligible expenses — tuition, book and lab fees — over $250.

The legislation would also allow a dollar-for-dollar state income tax credit for up to 100 percent of an individual’s or corporation’s tax liability based on the previous year’s tax filing if they donate to a variety of programs, foundations or organizations. Among them are organizations that grant scholarships to low- and middle-income students to attend private schools or Catholic schools.
Sanderson said the only realistic hope of having school choice legislation is tied to a tax increase, which will likely be part of the solution to the state’s budget impasse. “This is one time we might want to be supportive,” he said.

The Catholic Conference of Illinois asks that people participate in the process by educating themselves, and talking to parents, parishioners and law makers.
“If Springfield hears our collective voice, this will get passed and we will see school choice a reality in Illinois,” Sanderson said.

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