‘In Catholic Schools, We Do Not Pretend God Does Not Exist’

The essential role of Catholic teachers and school leaders as witnesses to the Faith was celebrated by participants in this fall’s Catholic High School Formation Summit with a special keynote address by the U.S. bishops’ representative for Catholic education.

I joined the Atlanta summit as director of The Cardinal Newman Society’s Catholic Education Honor Roll and was pleased to see that more than half the high schools represented there have been recognized by the Honor Roll for their strong Catholic identity. Their leadership and example is a sign of the renewal of faithful Catholic education.

The summit brought together high school teachers and leaders who are committed to faithful Catholic identity and the “fruitful formation of students as authentic disciples of Jesus Christ.” It was led by Fr. Paul Kostka, S.C.J., co-founder of the Servants of Christ Jesus inDenver, which co-sponsored the event with the Archdiocese of Denver and Holy Spirit Preparatory School in Atlanta.

The keynote and breakout sessions were rich with opportunities to reflect on contemporary issues facing Catholic education, such as the mission of Catholic education, teacher formation, developing communities of Catholic culture, ministering to students, and the school’s role in the New Evangelization.

In her keynote address, Sister John Mary Fleming, O.P., executive director for the Secretariat of Catholic Education at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, described the event as an “examination of conscience,” an opportunity to reflect on whether Catholic schools actually fulfill their mission.

In Catholic schools, we do not pretend God does not exist. We are free to pursue a complete and integrated vision of the divine and the human. The examination of conscience is whether we actually do this. That is why this conference matters; the reason for this conference. That we think about this, articulate it, and consciously and purposefully commit to do this.

Quoting Gravissimum Educationis, the Vatican II declaration on Catholic education, Sister stated emphatically:

The work of Catholic schools is to introduce young people to the saving and redeeming person of Jesus Christ. In order to achieve the goal of a true education, the Church freely establishes schools that promote the Gospel worldview with the purpose of forming men and women to know Christ, pursue truth and live virtuous lives. … This kind of education takes into account the whole person. We educate the body, mind and soul, a concept of education based on fullness, flourishing and formation. Not just skills development but human person development. That is the orientation of a life modeled after Jesus Christ and is the measure of the quality of a Catholic school.

Throughout my own work in Catholic education in such a fragmented, secular society, I have come to realize Catholic schools are really the only true educational environment left in our country in which students are allowed to freely think, speak about God and engage in topics important to both their spiritual and temporal nature. At The Cardinal Newman Society, we find this commitment especially in the Catholic Education Honor Roll schools,which provide the knowledge that leads to professional skills but in the context of an integrated education that enables students to live by Christian wisdom and virtue.

By contrast, it’s disturbing to see more and more Catholic schools that have basically transitioned into private schools that happen to teach a daily religion class. I’ve even noticed that these religion classes may be scheduled during the periods when students can be dismissed for athletics or play rehearsals.

That’s why it’s critical that those who work in a Catholic school understand the uniqueness of their work in the mission of the Church. Referencing the Church’s teachings, Sister stated:

I cannot overemphasize the role you personally play in the lives of your students. How you love them, teach them, speak to them, how you help them to practice virtue, how you recognize the enormous obstacles they have to overcome every day. Bringing the love of Jesus Christ to students in their daily lives — in you, through you and with you — to the school community is the most important thing you do each day. This is the center of the culture of witness in our Catholic schools. It is what makes our Catholic schools the special and new places they should be. We are free to do this every moment of every day. It would be sad, even tragic if we tried to be like the schools “down the street.”

I couldn’t agree more. The witness of the Catholic educator was the subject of my report released last year, The Call to Teach, which summarizes several Church documents on lay Catholic teachers and provides an account of the teacher qualities deemed important by the Church to maintain a school’s strong Catholic identity.

The theme was repeated throughout the summit. Among the many great breakout sessions,“Recruiting and Hiring Teachers with a Heart for the Mission” by Deacon Marc Nestorick, principal of Bishop Machebeuf High School in Denver, and “Ongoing Formation for Teachers” by Sister Mary Sarah Galbraith, O.P., president of the Newman Guide-recommended Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn., provided additional opportunities for discussion and sharing areas of promise and concern for educators from across the country.

Referencing the formation of teachers, Sr. John Mary explained the importance of a school environment where expectations for the spiritual formation of faculty and staff are as crucial as they are for the students:

In today’s pluralistic world, the Catholic educator must consciously inspire his or her activity with a Christian concept of the person in communion with the magisterium of the Church. It is a concept that includes a defense of human rights but also attributes to the human person the dignity of a child of God. It attributes the fullest liberty free from sin by Christ the most exalted destiny which is the definitive and total commission of God himself through love. What most wonderful gift can we give our students. To do that, we must know that ourselves and convey how wonderful this is.

This notion was built into all aspects of the conference with opportunities to be “in Communion” spiritually through daily Mass, Eucharistic adoration and time for personal reflection and prayer. It was truly a gift for the participants, whose daily schedules are filled with a variety of demands associated with their faculties, schools and communities.

Evidently clear from every aspect of the conference was a commitment to the tradition and cultural heritage of Catholic education. Catholic schools are important to the evangelization of future leaders in society and our Church. I found great hope in this gathering and am grateful for all those who are committed to this most important mission.

Jamie F. Arthur, Ph.D., is the director of the Catholic Education Honor Roll at The Cardinal Newman Society and author of The Call to Teach: Expectations for the Catholic Educator in Magisterial Teaching.

From Cardinal Newman Society