In thinking about the fact that this is Catholic Schools Week (CSW), I pondered the theme set by the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) for this year’s celebration: Faith, Excellence, and Service. If Saint Ignatius High School could be visualized as the seat of a stool, then it would be fairly obvious that the three main components of this year’s CSW (Faith, Excellence, and Service) would be the legs.
To continue the metaphor, we all know that such a stool would be much more solid and stable if dowels joined the three legs together. So, my imaginary stool’s dowels would be the three aspects of the Deposit of Faith: Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium. This Deposit of Faith has been handed on by Jesus to the Apostles and, ultimately, to us through every generation of the Church since the 1st Century A.D.
This Deposit of Faith began as the spoken words of Jesus and continues to this day through the ordinary Magisterium of the Church and the extraordinary Magisterium of the Pope. The words of Jesus, handed on through the oral tradition of the first generation of disciples, became, over time, the texts of the Gospels in the New Testament. These texts are, for us, the common source of our understanding of the life and teachings of Jesus.
One of the things that people often wonder about in the Bible in general, and the Gospels in particular, is their trustability. For example, how certain can we be concerning the historical accuracy of the Gospel stories? Maybe there are non-miraculous explanations for what the Gospels portray as miraculous events. Perhaps the early evangelists made things up to boost Jesus’ CV and make Him more impressive than He really was.
The easy theological answer is that if the Holy Spirit did indeed guide the authors of the Gospels in their writings, then to doubt those writings is to doubt the Holy Spirit. So, if these stories of Jesus are indeed of divine origin, then we must treat them as authentic accounts of Jesus and His ministry. A second answer, this time historical, is that the writings of the early Church Fathers quote extensively from the Gospels as we have them today. The most important of these early authors were so close to the time of Jesus that they were consecrated as bishops by the apostles Peter (Clement of Rome) and John (Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna).
The oldest known piece of the New Testament is a fragment from the Gospel of St. John. Held at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England, this small 3.5-inch tall by 2.4-inch wide bit of papyrus has writing on both sides and thus was once part of a “codex” or book rather than a scroll. The words of the front and back come from John 18:31-33 and 18:37-38 respectively. Because of the irregular shape of the papyrus, only certain words and word fragments from these verses are a part of the text.
As important as this relic of our biblical past is for the Catholic Church, the text should be the focus. John’s 18th chapter begins with the arrest of Jesus and concludes with the trial before Pilate. The verses on the Rylands Fragment are (in full) as follows:
[Front] At this, Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves, and judge him according to your law.” The Jews answered him, “We do not have the right to execute anyone,” in order that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled that he said indicating the kind of death he would die. So Pilate went back into the praetorium and summoned Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
[Back] So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
It is said of the Gospels that if they were lost entirely, we could reconstruct them based solely on their quotations in the writings of the Church Fathers. But what if all we had was the oral tradition of the Apostolic Age and this fragment from St. John? I contend that, although we could not necessarily reconstruct the Gospels, we wouldn’t need to because we would have everything that is essential: the oral tradition and this brief fragment.
Catholic schools are in the business of imitating the Apostles and the Church Fathers by spreading the Gospel message to each successive generation of Catholics. What binds together their attempts at education in Faith, Excellence, and Service is the Person of Jesus Christ. All authentic Catholic education is Christocentric, which means that when it is answering the question, “What is truth?” it is always pointing to that Jesus Who testified to the truth and in doing so directed His followers to live lives of Faith, Excellence, and Service.