Yesterday, a journalist from “The Economist” came to interview me for an article she’s writing. A recent resident of Florida, she wanted to hear more about the impact the Cuban exile community had on the development of Miami. It was a very good friend of mine, a classmate from the class of 1987, who suggested she come to Belen and interview me.
The logic behind the suggestion was if there was one institution that personifies the reality of the Cuban exile community, it’s Belen. Five Jesuit priests were kicked out of their homeland, stripped of everything they had and showed up on the shores of Miami, Florida, and basically got to work. No moping around, no licking of wounds, no whining, just a dusting off of totalitarian dust and good, honest work. It’s the ingredient that in this country has always been the recipe for success.
After spending some time discussing the history of our school, the journalist asked me what I thought Belen had to offer now above all else. Since we are no longer simply a school of Cuban immigrants working in a city that is no longer simply Cuban, what best do we have to give? I didn’t hesitate for one second to answer: Catholic identity.
I explained to her in very plain English that I feel we live in a world that works very hard to eradicate identity because it may be offensive to others. It often feels like you’re maneuvering through a field filled with landmines where any post or email or expression of faith has the potential to explode in your face. Social media only widens the expanse of this field and makes it all the more treacherous and requires you to be all the more careful.
Our world today not only seems to want to eradicate basic identity, but is also hostile towards anyone who tries to express it. To say one is Catholic and lives and teaches faithfully the values of the Catholic Church is like a declaration of war on a world that considers itself “progressive.” I hate when people use that word to challenge the Church. We are accused of not being that. If that is the case, then the Church is “regressive.” In other words, “less developed” or “returning to an older state.” I couldn’t disagree more. To say our Catholic-Christian values are not progressive is like accusing a mathematician of the same thing because he or she continues to insist that two plus two is four. The traditional absolute values of life and love and the good are exactly that: absolute. That being the case, no matter how much science and society “progress,” our values necessarily remain the same.
If you take a serious look at the history of the Church, you will clearly find that in the places where she needs to be, the Church has definitely been progressive. Some of the most incredible scientific discoveries have not only been discovered by Catholic scientists, but in most cases funded by the Church. Some of the most celebrated painters, architects, composers, and sculptors of all time have been Catholic and, once again, funded by the Church. Even to this day, some of the largest observatories in the world… Catholic. Some of the most vocal leaders of the world… Catholic. Some of the bravest soldiers, avid human rights activists, and committed environmentalists in the world… Catholic, Catholic, Catholic.
We cannot accuse intrinsic, God-given values that do not change throughout the millennia and transcend cultures and regions as being regressive values. God would have none of that. It is all about finding the right balance between being at the forefront of history while not compromising the gospel of Jesus Christ. Telling the truth, no matter the cost; turning the other cheek; and being convinced that men and women are created in the image and likeness of God are not easy principles to live by, but they are definitely not regressive.
This is what makes Belen, Belen. When I stand in front of 1,000 families at the Open House who are discerning if our school is the right place for their son, it is only fair to them and to us that I clearly express that we are first and foremost a Catholic school. No one should be blindsided when they find out we are pro-life. No one should be surprised when we defend traditional family values. No one should be shocked when we require all students to go to Mass, pray the rosary, or say the Pledge of Allegiance. This is who we are and it is important that we remain that way.
One of the great things about Miami is that there are many great options for education. There are several schools that provide great academic and athletic programs. There are many of them whose campuses are beautiful and have that collegiate feel. And, for many, they provide an identity that may be more to their liking. I strongly believe the greatest service we can provide, not simply for Belen families, but the whole of South Florida is the clearest possible identity. That way, families can make the clearest possible choice.
There is no question we are a work in progress. While our identity is crystal clear, there is still a lot we need to do to live it as perfectly as we can. But, isn’t that the life of the Christian? The Scriptures are filled with men and women who continuously struggled to live the teachings of Jesus Christ. They were far from perfect, but what they did have was the desire to be faithful disciples. I am convinced that at the end of the day, it’s what God appreciates most, the struggle. And, so we go. We will continue to navigate the choppy waters of our challenging world, holding firmly to the wheel of our Catholic identity knowing this will help us overcome time and time again.