We fly unto thy patronage… or Dear Benefactors, Part 1

We all know the prayer—or we all should know the prayer:

We fly unto thy patronage, oh Holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin.

This prayer has resurfaced in my spiritual lexicon because of my rich experience this summer visiting and studying the vast treasure of art throughout Rome and Florence. In particular, it was the word “patron” that was used so often in reference to the greatest works of art in human history. Over and over and over again I was presented with the idea that a great painting, sculpture, or building owes its existence to the patronage of this lady or that duke, this pope or that archbishop.

Patronage. I have always been familiar with the term and the concept, but to see in a concentrated manner its having been the cause of the treasury of medieval and renaissance art and architecture, I came to see it in a new light. I was in awe at the sheer amount of great beauty that has inspired so many people over the centuries, all thanks to patrons who wanted to support the advancement of the best and finest things—especially for future generations. I especially saw it in an enlightening reference to our work in Catholic education. It is this that I would like to share.

In a quarter century of running Catholic schools, I have raised a great deal of money from patrons. My work with creating textbooks and providing services to teachers and school through our Institute have also depended upon the generosity of patrons who saw their gifts as just that, gifts. Gifts which will gain grace for the world through the ministry of Catholic education. In short, service to the Church through her most productive ministry, education, costs more money than most people can pay. As a donor, benefactor, friend—whatever the moniker—you are essential to this great work of the Church.

Here is the rub. Donors can start to feel put-upon. I have seen it happen repeatedly: donor fatigue. Why am I still giving? Why can’t you just charge what it costs? Why can’t you turn a profit like the famous prep school? And, the one question that should be asked more often: Why should I give money to a school that is no longer living her mission? (Who can forget the scandalous story of the condoms being passed out at a table on Student Activities Day at Georgetown underneath the portrait of a wealthy and holy grande dame benefactor.) To this last question, suffice it to say that if a Catholic ministry loses her Catholic focus, they should lose our support as well, since we are to be responsible stewards of His money that he has entrusted to us.

I would propose that my benefactors, and benefactors to the school in Cleveland or Lexington or Atlanta or Dallas, to all benefactors, that you consider yourselves in the mold of the renaissance patrons, or even our Heavenly Patron, our Blessed Mother. Instead of worrying about the school making money, making a profit, or charging enormous tuition, think of the school as an artisans’ studio. Think of the school as a place where great art is being performed and taught for the greater glory of God. For, in many ways, that is exactly what happens in a Catholic school faithful to the clearly defined mission of a Catholic school—the transference of culture ordered to a life and eternity of sanctity.

The patrons of great art got nothing in terms of financial gain from their “investment.” Yet, for hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years, millions of people have looked upon those works which were supported because they were good, and the right kind of thing to support. Among those millions, countless have been inspired to thoughts and actions in accord with the highest things, the transcendentals of truth, beauty, and goodness. This is exactly what so powerfully moved me this summer. Bishop Robert Barron talks much about beauty and its power in our world to draw people back to Truth, and to God Himself.

We fly to Our Lady’s patronage in our necessities. We ask her help, daily, always, until we draw our last breath. And our Blessed Mother obliges. She does not ask, count, score—she looks for faithfulness, not Harvard admissions. She gives in hopes of the ultimate ROI (return on investment): another soul won for Heaven.

Similarly, dear benefactors of Catholic education, patrons if I might, we fly to you in our necessities. We ask your help daily, yearly, until you and I pass on our responsibilities to the next generation because we are on the threshold of our heavenly reward. Please continue to oblige. Look to the students, talk with the teachers, come to see the real worth of what you are the patron of—souls growing in truth, beauty and goodness. Harvard does not value that. Names on stadiums do not achieve that.

Your patronage of excellent teachers helps provide them a living wage, which allows them to live generously in God’s call to them as family men and women open to life and charitably serving the formation of future generations. Your patronage of faithful Catholic schools keeps alive the hope of transmitting the true, the good and the beautiful to children who will pass it on to their children, and their children’s children.

Finally, your patronage, like the patronage of the great art of the western world, will speak to and elevate countless generations to the mystery of beauty, and thus, God himself. What a legacy!

MICHAEL J. VAN HECKE, M.Ed., a seasoned headmaster and educational speaker, is also the founder and president of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and the Catholic Textbook Project. In their spare time, he and his wife farm avocados.

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