During the Diocese of Evansville’s annual Back-to-School gathering, Father Alex Zenthoefer presented more than 500 Catholic educators with one question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Father Zenthoefer, Diocesan Director of Vocations and pastor of Annunciation of the Lord Parish in Evansville, spoke to teachers and administrators on Aug. 2 in Good Shepherd School’s gymnasium. His presentation, titled: “The heart of education: Our need and the needs of our students,” was full of inspirational thoughts and advice to educators before they begin a new school year.
As Father Zenthoefer began his presentation, he asked who taught him when he attended Westside Catholic and Mater Dei High Schools. When a group of teachers raised their hands, he joked, “This is their fault whatever happens next.”
Father Zenthoefer started with the story of a man who makes a brief appearance in Chapter 10 of the Gospel of Mark. Most of this man’s story is unknown, Father Zenthoefer said, but he was successful, well-liked and a faithful Jew. However, the man still felt like something was missing, so he knelt before Jesus and asked a question Father Zenthoefer said every person wonders: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
We have to keep this question in mind, Father Zenthoefer said. It has to be one of the most difficult things of being a teacher, he explained, because the question is not always asked in such a straight-forward way. A third-grader, most likely, will not approach his or her teacher and ask, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
And sometimes, at the heart of parental complaints and worries, is a “real desire for eternal life for their child,” Father Zenthoefer said, “but they don’t know how to express it.”
Father Zenthoefer advised teachers to look past the behavior of the student who is acting out in class because what the child truly desires is eternal life.
“Our students and our parents can get lost in a lot of things,” he said. “They can think that many other things are more important. We are the ones who have to stand in front of them with a view to eternity. We are the ones who have to remind them and be consistent in acknowledging the fact that they are made for eternal life, and that’s really what their heart is longing for.”
Education is not purely functional, Father Zenthoefer said, but to educate a student is to lead them on a path to eternity.
“You might say, you know I didn’t sign up for this,” Father Zenthoefer said. “I signed up to teach math, and that’s my job, to teach math. Not in a Catholic school that’s not your job. Your job is be to a witness of the faith first; secondly, your job is to teach math.”
Also during the Back-to-School gathering before Mass, educators got out of their seats to play an ice-breaker game: What’s my word? Everyone received a letter, and they were challenged to create a word of celebration and one defining our faith. They rushed around Good Shepherd’s gym and came up with words including event, life, God and Jesus.
Dr. Daryl Hagan, diocesan schools superintendent, said while the Diocese of Evansville’s 75th Anniversary celebrations won’t officially kick-off until November, Bishop Joseph M. Siegel has been “so gracious and he loves Catholic schools so he said that we can have the opportunity to kick-it-off before anyone else.”
The diocesan school theme for the 2019-2020 school year is “Christ — Yesterday, Today and Forever: 75 Years of Living the Faith.”
Hagan told educators it’s important to approach each day with an attitude of celebration. He said while it’s not always easy, it’s key to celebrate the possibilities every day in every classroom, to celebrate the potential in each student, and to celebrate one another.
“Celebrating what’s right helps us recognize the possibilities and find solutions to the many challenges that we have before us,” Hagan said. “We — the bishop, pastors, our parishes, this community — are sending you out into this new school year to discover what is right with your school, what is right with your parish, what is right with you classroom and, most important, what is right with your students,” he said.
Hagan thanked educators for choosing Catholic Schools, and reminded them: “You belong here.”
“You could choose to be a lot of places . . . but you choose to be here,” he said. “You choose to carry out the mission of Catholic education, forming our children as disciples of God in a world that is screaming for it.”