Just over 20 years ago, I walked into a high school classroom as a Theology teacher for the very first time. Prepared with not much more than a newly minted degree and all the enthusiasm, exuberance, and confidence of a 21 year old, I was ready to mold young minds and prepare the next generation. I was confident that I was the holder of Theological knowledge and spiritual wisdom that the 15 year olds sitting in front of me so desperately needed and would absorb like sponges. I was ready to answer their questions and expose them to ideas from the world's greatest Catholic thinkers. Three weeks into my first year of teaching, was 9/11 and everything I thought I knew and everything I thought I was ready to teach changed. And while I’m fairly certain I have managed to teach a compelling lesson or two over the years, the lessons I have learned from my students have far outweighed anything I could ever teach them. And those lessons can be summed up in the themes of today’s readings.
First, be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. In the first reading we hear about Phillip, Peter, and John as they traveled beyond Jerusalem to Samaria preaching, praying, and performing signs in the name of Jesus. All who heard received the Holy Spirit and the Spirit transformed the people and communities in ways that they could never have expected. Over the years, my students have been that spirit for me. Yes, they frustrate me and cause me great exasperation. But when I watch them offer to help a classmate who is struggling, pitch an idea for a new service project, or lovingly push back on one of my lessons as we enter into authentic dialogue, they teach me to be patient and help me to grow in gentleness, kindness, and generosity. Through them, the Holy Spirit has helped me to grow as an educator and as a human in ways I couldn’t have imagined all those years ago as a brand new teacher. Who in ways unexpected reminds you to always be open to the Holy Spirit?
Second, live a life full of joy. Our psalm today impels us to cry out to God with joy to shout joyfully to God. Today’s high school students have lived through more than their fair share of distressing and traumatic global events. It would be reasonable to think that this is a generation of despair and sorrow. I don’t want to discount the very real mental health issues facing young people but I do want to acknowledge that despite everything, or maybe because of everything, my students seek and practice joy on a daily basis. In the smallest moments like raiding the candy dish in my office, or cheering for their classmates in a pep rally, inviting me to join them in the latest TikTok dance trend, or singing “Yes Lord” complete with hand motions at Mass. In finding play, laughter, and joy in the mundane, they lift it up and make it sacred. How can we follow the example of these young people and remember to see the holy moments in our everyday lives?
Third, when I find myself despairing about the state of the world, I don’t need to look much further than my students to be able to do what the reading from the first letter of Peter instructs - to give an explanation to anyone who asks for a reason for my hope. Too often I hear laments that start with something like “The kids these days… They are too this or not enough that.” I have to tell you - the kids are alright! Gen Z is by far the most inclusive and globally aware generation. They are keen arbiters of equity, are quick to point out injustice and courageous enough to call you to accountability and restoration. And, whether or not they formally identify as part of the Church, they are the open arms of Jesus as they build God’s kin-dom by welcoming all to their table. Who in your life is your source of hope in the way my students are to me and how can you be that source for someone else?
Finally and most importantly, love. Love must be the center and foundation of all my interactions. Today’s Gospel reminds us that If I love Jesus, I will keep his command and that command is to love God by loving my neighbor. Over the years, some of my students have caught me off guard with a question or comment I was ill prepared to respond to - difficult questions about sin in the world, why bad things happen to good people, questions of morality and ethics, questions about the Church’s actions in history. They were looking for answers to help them make sense of the world or to bring them comfort in a time of turmoil. In those moments, my students may be inspired by something a Church Father wrote or something a saint said but what they will always respond to is the love I show them by acknowledging and validating their ideas, queries, confusions, and concerns. The greatest lesson my students have taught me, the lesson Jesus preached over and over again, is that when the facts and figures in books or creeds or laws are not enough to meet the needs of the person standing in front of me, in the moments when theology fails, default to love. When someone comes to you and you may not know how to answer with your head, how can you make sure that you respond from your heart?
20 years in the classroom has flown by, and I have at least 20 more years left as an educator. I am sure that I will continue to learn from and be shaped by the generations of students to come. Whatever lessons the future holds for all of us teachers or not, may we always remain open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, live a life of joy, find hope in the young people around us, and keep love at the center of all our relationships as Christ did.
Kristina M. Ortega
Kristina M. Ortega
Kristina Ortega holds a B.A. and an M.A. in Theological Studies and a certificate in Catholic School Administration from Loyola Marymount University and has taught Theology in Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles since 2001. Currently, Kristina is the JDEI (Justice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) Coordinator and Service Coordinator at Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA. Outside of school, Kristina sits on two planning committees for the LA Religious Education Congress and also serves as a Minister of Liturgical Movement. Kristina contributed a chapter to the book “Creating Spaces for Women in the Catholic Church” edited by Sr. Sarah Kohles, OSF due out this summer.
Take an opportunity to read and reflect on the Sunday readings during the first five weeks of Lent. Participants are provided with links to reflections on the Lectionary readings (Cycle A) written by scholars -- including weekly preaching from Catholic Women Preach. Then, each week participants share their insights in an online community discussion, guided by a facilitator.MORE INFO/REGISTER
Advertise with Catholic Women Preach: email Russ at email@example.com