Catholic School’s Week
Receiving the Call to Serve
by: Clayton Atkins
People often speak of receiving a call to serve. The language has become something of a cliché: we hear how “we are all called to serve God in different ways”; how “we are called to serve each other”; or, especially this time of year, how we are called to serve the Church by supporting this or that drive, appeal, or fundraiser. In my case, I received a literal call to service—a phone call that is.
I had just moved back to Fort Myers with my soon-to-be wife, who had accepted a teaching position at a local elementary school. I had spent the last seven years in Gainesville, Florida, where we met, where I studied Literature, where I soon realized that there weren’t many jobs for bookish types who liked to read and talk about literary things, and where I subsequently jumped around from one job to another. I wouldn’t say that I was floundering, but my life certainly lacked direction. My professors at the university had talked me out of pursuing a graduate degree in English, citing poor career prospects for teaching positions in the humanities. I remember one of them telling me that if I wanted to teach English, high school would be my best bet. So I toyed with the idea; I suppose it was in the back of my mind, but I wasn’t fully committed. I didn’t have a plan.DOWNLOAD THE BULLETIN
Then I received my call. I had only been back in town for a few months when my phone rang with an unknown number on the screen. Upon answering, I recognized the familiar, yet somewhat forgotten voice of my former English teacher from Bishop Verot. She mentioned an unforeseen vacancy in the English department, said that she had heard that I was back in town, and immediately thought of me.
Now, some of you may be thinking, “Great. You got a job. Good for you, but what does any of this have to do with service?” Well, I would encourage you to speak with teachers about their work; I can assure you that even a short conversation about their day-to-day lives would reveal that teaching is nothing if it is not service to others. This is especially true of teaching at a Catholic school.
I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised when I received my call to serve as a teacher at a Catholic school, even if it did seem to come out of nowhere. Although I hadn’t spoken with my former teacher in years, I thought about her often. It was in her classroom where my heart and mind were first captivated by the power of the written word. I remember many late nights in college when something I read would trigger a memory from her class: an oft-repeated phrase, a silly pun, a deep insight. Her passion, understanding, and devotion changed my life, and I hadn’t even recognized it.
I had never given it much thought, but I am most certainly a product of Catholic education: I attended Catholic schools for the entirety of my childhood and adolescence, so I was used to having passionate teachers who cared about their subjects and, more importantly, their students. In my years as a student at Bishop Verot, it wasn’t uncommon to see a dozen or so lonely cars scattered throughout the parking lot as the sun set in the evenings. Today, this is still a common sight. The teachers at Bishop Verot sacrifice their time and energy to serve their students—staying late to help a struggling student, plan a memorable lesson, or read a never-ending stack of college essays.
There is a reason why I chose to use the word sacrifice. The notion of Christian service is intricately intertwined with sacrifice. Perhaps a Bible verse will best illustrate my point. In John’s telling of Christ’s final days, immediately before Jesus serves his disciples his Last Supper, he humbles himself and performs a service for them.
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments again he went back to the table. ‘Do you understand’, he said, ‘what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you. ‘In all truth I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, no messenger is greater than the one who sent him. (13 John)
What Christ was calling his disciples to do, and what he is calling on us to do by his example, is to serve. It is telling that Jesus chose that particular moment to perform this simple service. He was about to make the ultimate sacrifice on the cross. To serve another is to sacrifice a part of yourself. Service is an act of giving, and in order to give, we must give something up. However, it is important for us not to think of sacrifice only in the negative way that the word is often intoned. There is a beauty to Christ’s sacrifice, made in service to all of humanity.
In this passage, Christ twice refers to himself as “Teacher.” Teachers sacrifice their time and energy every day for their students. But an important aspect of this passage is Christ’s inversion of the roles of Masters and Servants. Christ, the Master, Teacher, and Lord, humbly serves His servants. An integral aspect of Catholic education is attempting to reverse the role of Teacher and Student. Teachers are called to serve their students, but students are likewise called to serve each other.
I know from personal experience at Bishop Verot, that students learn to serve each other in many ways. This service can manifest itself in small acts of kindness such as tutoring a struggling student, standing up for a fellow classmate, or volunteering for local charities. But oftentimes, this service can also take the form of heartwarming displays of communal sacrifice. Two years ago, when a Bishop Verot student was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo costly treatment, our basketball coach, Coach Herting, organized “Southwest Florida’s largest garage sale” in our gymnasium. Students were encouraged to donate anything of value. The result was an entire basketball court littered with stuff, and hundreds of faculty members, staff, students, and parents sacrificing their time to clean, organize, and sell it. Yes, we all gave something up, but in giving, we received what we always receive when we sacrifice ourselves for others—community, warmth, friendship, and that feeling of satisfaction that you can only get from serving others.
This is just the first thing that came to my mind when I thought about how the Bishop Verot family serves the community and one another; there are countless others.
In light of this year’s Catholic Schools Week, I would like to encourage each of you to speak with current and former students from St. Francis Xavier and Bishop Verot, to get an idea about how they are learning to be of service to our community.
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