Students in graduation

Pope Francis' visit - A Commentary by Rev. Edwin Leahy, O.S.B.

Newark, N.J. (2015) -
My life’s work is education. I’ve served as the headmaster of a Catholic school in Newark for the past 43 years, and I recognize a gifted teacher when I see one. Pope Francis is a gifted teacher. I had the very special privilege of being invited to two events at the start of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States – the reception on the White House lawn and the Pope’s remarks to a joint session of Congress.

Like a gifted teacher, he was encouraging and, at the same time, challenged us to do better. He spoke respectfully, even gently, as he championed our efforts on the many serious issues we confront. But his words of encouragement to our elected leaders were also bold, urging us to do more. Using Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as examples, Pope Francis emphasized how each pointed to ways that our national character grew through difficult, heroic efforts to extend liberty and racial and social justice to those in our midst who had been tragically mistreated or routinely neglected. I felt the calm and peace in his voice, so resonant in that chamber, sent its own message: we have both the power and the purpose to take on these challenges.

For me and all of us here in Newark who work with young people, it was the Pope’s comments about our youth that resonated the most. For many of our young, especially young men in our city, the dreams of future possibilities seem to vanish in their teenage years in “a hopeless maze of violence, abuse, and despair.” In Newark, the maze is overwhelming: nearly 30 percent of our community lives below the poverty line, which is three times the New Jersey average. Our violent crime rate is more than three times the national median. Four thousand young people in our city, ages 16 to 24, are not in school.

I am grateful to Pope Francis for shining light on the kinds of obstacles our youth face, and I share his faith that we can do better. At St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, we are devoted to helping boys in and around Newark fulfill their potential as emotionally mature, morally responsible and well-educated young men. Operated by the Benedictine monks of Newark Abbey since 1868, our school offers a rigorous college preparatory curriculum that sharpens the mind, shapes the character and nourishes the spirit.

But here’s a confession: It isn’t easy. Fifty percent of our students come from low-income families. Most of our students come from schools that have failed to prepare them for high school, where college isn’t a dream, let alone reality. But at St. Benedict’s, we see what’s possible. Our own gifted teachers push our students to be better—in and out of the classroom—and we surround them with unwavering support. Our kids get lots of love, but it’s definitely the tough love variety.

And it’s working. While only 73 percent of our country’s Black and Latino students graduate from high school, nearly 100 percent of our students, 88 percent of whom are Black or Latino, graduate from St. Benedict’s, with 98 percent going on to college. More than 80 percent of our recent graduates have completed their college degree or are enrolled and on track to graduate. Our boys stand proud of the hard work behind them and primed to contribute their full range of gifts to their family, community and an ever-changing world.

As the Pope exhorts us, “we cannot avoid their problems. They are ours.” We may not all be gifted teachers, but we must do much more to encourage our young people in Newark and across our state. We have the power. We must now make it our purpose. We must urge one another to “see” all of our young people, to “see their faces” and hear their stories. As Pope Francis clearly sees, at our school and throughout our city, we have many acknowledged “dreamers” and many others who won’t or can’t dare to dream. It is time to help them to encounter their possibilities.