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 | By Mary Gates

Forming Disciples

When it comes to her purpose in life, there are no questions for Catholic school theology teacher Mary Gates. She helps form scholars and saints daily, but she recognizes where the real source of learning and growth comes from: God.

I was a first-year teacher in a public middle school on Sept. 11, 2001, when my principal came into my classroom. He handed me a note that explained the events of the morning and asked me to share the news of the terrorist attacks with my students. 

As I watched 30 seventh-graders work on their writing assignments, I was paralyzed by what I couldn’t do with these kids who I had already come to love: I couldn’t pray with them, talk about good and evil, or share the hope of eternal life. Our school wasn't going to gather for Mass that day or pray a rosary. We weren’t going to read scripture or talk about how we, as believers, were called to respond to such evil and tragedy.

A year later, God brought me back to teach at the Catholic high school I had attended as a student. At Mass commemorating the first anniversary of 9/11, our chaplain preached about the reality of what it means to be made for holiness. “If you don’t believe,” he said, “that you are capable of the level of evil carried out on this day, you do not understand the gift of your human freedom. And if you do not believe that you can become a great saint, you do not understand the gift of your human freedom.” 

It was a call to live heroic virtue, to become followers of Christ, and to never underestimate what God can do with a humble witness. My own call became clearer that day, and my classroom became mission territory, a place where I would encounter 100 kids a year. Some of them wanted to be there, some would rather be anywhere else, some believed and wanted to know more, some were doubting and skeptical. But every one of them is loved by God, and all of them need to know that they were made to be great saints.

The students who have come in and out of my classroom in the more than 20 years since that day have encouraged me and challenged me. They ask great questions, tell bad jokes, and try to divert the discussions. We talk about homecoming and heaven, God’s mercy and their sporting events, prayer and the sacraments. And by God’s grace, we witness to each other. In the face of tragedies and suffering in the decades since 9/11, our Catholic school community has rallied together, rooted in shared faith: Mass and rosaries and meal trains following the death of a teacher, drive-through confessions and online ministries during the pandemic, Mass and rosaries and faith-based discussions following the MSU shooting. Our Catholic school fulfills its mission through the daily living of our faith.

My own children (one K-12 Catholic school alumnus/current college student, three current Catholic school students and one future Catholic school student) have been formed by faithful teachers who pray with and for them, and who teach them the truth in love. From their teachers they have learned and have seen what it means to follow Christ. 

The gift of Catholic education in my life as an alumna, teacher, and parent is immeasurable. The shared mission of every teacher, administrator, and staff member of every Catholic school is one from God: to, with parents, form disciples who will live heroically virtuous lives, become witnesses, and who will one day be great saints. 

May all of us who have been called to form the hearts and minds of young people embrace this mission, and in doing so, may we, too, become great saints.