NEW ORLEANS — In their daily striving to know and care for the young people in their midst, those who have a vocation to teach in Catholic schools and religious formation programs have the amazing privilege to teach “as Jesus did,” said New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond.

He made the remarks at the April 19 opening Mass of “NCEA 2022,” which drew 2,000 Catholic school administrators, teachers, pastors and other education professionals to the Crescent City.

It was the National Catholic Educational Association’s first large-scale, in-person event since the onset of the global pandemic.

Referencing the Gospel from St. John in which Mary Magdalene frets upon discovering the empty tomb — and fails to recognize the risen Christ until he calls her by name — Aymond said those involved in the ministry of Catholic education, too, must be forever willing to call every student by name.

These educators also must model Christ’s patient, unwavering love to those who show up to school sad, fearful or confused, he said.

“We can only imagine the range of emotions, in a few minutes, that went through Mary Magdalene’s mind and heart,” Aymond said. “She was crying, she was confused (and) she was in shock when she finally saw (Jesus).”

Once Mary Magdalene recognizes him, Christ asks her to go out and tell others of his resurrection. Likewise, Catholic educators and formators are sent out daily to share the joy of the resurrection with their students and to let them each know he or she is God’s beloved child, Archbishop Almond said.

It is Catholic educators — no matter the title they hold or subject they teach — who are on the front lines with young people who are dealing with a myriad of challenges that could include illness, financial distress, divorce, special learning needs, bereavement, suicide and drug addiction, the archbishop said.

They are the point people when their students and parents ask them, “Where is Jesus in all this?”

“We walk with students; we walk with faculty, administrators, parents and families,” Aymond said. “We are called in our daily lives and in our daily ministry to call others by name — in classrooms, in schoolyards, in our halls, in the cafeteria, the bus line and wherever we are … to bring the risen Christ to others and to bring them to the risen Christ.”

Delivering opening keynote of the April 19-21 conference was Father Rodney “Tony” Ricard, pastor of St. Gabriel the Archangel Church in New Orleans and a teaching veteran of more than 30 years.

He urged Catholic educators to not be overly harsh or dismissive of the children and teenagers in their care.

Catholic identity, simply put, is convincing kids of their own God-given greatness, said Father Ricard, who also serves as chaplain/theology department head at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans.

“Since we don’t know the time, the place nor the hour when the Master will return, it’s better that we treat every child as if he or she is the Christ coming back again,” or risk learning on Judgment Day that we treated Jesus himself as “a nobody.”

“If we say true to who God calls us to be, not only are we going to be safe in heaven (ourselves), but ultimately, we must convince our children that they will be there with us, too,” Ricard said. “We need to convince them that one day they will put on a robe (in heaven); they’re going to put on new shoes; and they definitely will wear a crown!”

The priest said the main job of teachers and administrators alike is to help their students “know who they are” and then to challenge them to follow in the unique path that God has laid out for them.

“So many people are trying to convince them that they’re not destined for greatness,” said Ricard, noting that teachers and other school leaders often get so caught up in their own titles, power and preconceptions that don’t recognize the imperfect little saints in front of them.

“(It’s not about us) — it’s about that little snotty-nosed 3-year-old coming into your pre-K,” he said.

“It’s about that ‘just-trying-to-find-herself’ fourth grader with the attitude; it’s about that high school young man who is trying to navigate his way between who he is and how God made him,” he continued. “It’s about that high school senior who’s so scared to graduate, because for the last 13 years of his life, the only time he got to eat a full meal was that breakfast and that lunch at school.”

Ricard said that even Mary and Joseph — Jesus’ earliest teachers — occasionally underrated the greatness of their child.

To make his point, he read St. Luke’s Gospel account of Jesus’ being found in the temple after a frantic search by his parents and “astonishing” the temple’s elders with his knowledge of Scripture.

Those listening to the 12-year-old Jesus “had no idea who that little boy was,” Father Ricard said.

“My brothers and sisters, my challenge to you is so simple: Remember who you belong to,” the priest said. “When you walk through the doors of your school, remember who you belong to; when you walk into your classrooms, remember who you belong to — but don’t think you’re the only one who belongs to God!

“Never take for granted that Jesus — the Christ — just might be sitting in your classroom!”

In his welcoming remarks, Lincoln Snyder, NCEA’s president and CEO, thanked Catholic educators for being powerful examples of “servant leadership” who lovingly shepherded their students through the pandemic.

Snyder noted that more than 100,000 Catholic educators serving grades K-12 tenaciously taught students, in person, for the majority of the pandemic. Their sacrifices and skills assured their students’ continued spiritual, academic and social development as other school systems remained mired in less effective, mostly virtual instruction.

As a result of Catholic schools’ strong, in-person academics, spiritual backbone, stringent safety measures and family-friendly atmosphere, Catholic schools have gained more than 60,000 new students over the last two years, with K-12 student enrollment rising nationwide from 1.62 million to 1.69 million, Snyder said.

“Catholic schools did better than anyone in preventing learning loss during COVID — our students kept growing (as though) there had been no COVID. Catholic schools led the way!” said Snyder.

The collective wisdom needed to bridge learning gaps among students who didn’t fare as well during lockdowns and quarantines “is right here in this room,” he added.

“No one is better prepared to model the way forward than we are,” Snyder said. “We showed that it was possible to operate schools safely and effectively in a pandemic, and limit the harm to our kids.”

Donze is a staff writer at the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.