In a Catholic school everyone works together and grows together, united by a common mission to form young people in faith and knowledge for success in this life and the next. Catholic educators are more than just instructors; they are servant leaders and catechists who echo the faith. But the students are not the only ones growing; teachers grow together with their students, and, in turn, Catholic schools grow.
As an example in this article, I will refer to the experience of my son, Sam, who goes to a Catholic school. As parents, my wife and I form a partnership with the pastor, the principal, the teachers, and all the staff. We all work together to help Sam and his fellow students get an education to encounter Jesus Christ. This is why Catholic schools exist: to provide students with an encounter with the living God through every aspect of the life of the school. In the process of creating this environment of encounter, all involved have the opportunity to grow.
There are many areas in which people grow throughout life: physically, in knowledge, in the ability to process and reason, in skills, and in faith. Everyone has key growth points in life, and often those points are tied to Church. This is one reason why parishes are so important, because the parish is a place Catholics go to celebrate or witness big growth moments in life, whether the birth of a child, First Communion, marriage, personal trouble, and funerals. Growth is continuous, but there are big moments for Catholics that serve as markers along the journey and memory points that can be called on when needed.
Catholic educators are called to always be growing: growing in faith to be better witnesses to the students in their care, and growing as professional educators, in what they teach and how they teach it.
In considering the growth of students, remember that God made every person as spirit, mind, and body (1 Thess 5), and all are created to grow physically, intellectually, and spiritually. God made us this way for a reason: that we could know, love, and serve him in this life and the next; and so growth needs to take place in each area. The formation these Catholic schools provide does indeed help students grow in spirit, mind, and body.
Where does this growth take place? For educators and for students, it takes place in a distinct way in the Catholic school. This is where the teachers and students spend most of their day.
When Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States in April 2008, he gave an address to educators at the Catholic University of America, explaining this distinction:
“Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the good news. First and foremost, every Catholic institution is a place to encounter the living God, who in Jesus Christ, reveals his transforming love and truth” (Meeting with Catholic Educators, April 17, 2008, Washington, D.C., par. 2).
He states that a Catholic school is integral to the Church’s mission to proclaim the Good News. Yes, educators teach, but they also witness; and their work is, by its nature, evangelistic. He goes on to say that a Catholic school is a place to encounter the living God. Notice he doesn’t say that it’s a place where only children encounter God, because the environment of the school impacts everyone. Everyone grows together, just like in a parish community; indeed, in the case of a parish school, the school itself is a part of the larger parish community and one ministry (usually a very large ministry!) among many.
Encountering the living God through a school happens through the four markers of a Catholic school: ecclesial communion, celebration of the sacraments and prayer, teaching the faith, and an environment permeated by the gospel spirit.
For a school to be Catholic it needs to be tied to and in relationship with the Catholic Church, the Body of Christ. The mission of a Catholic school is to form the next generation in faith and prepare them for success in this life and the next. It’s about the great commission of Jesus to “teach them all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). Jesus gave this commission to the apostles, who, in turn, passed on the responsibility to their successors, the bishops. This is why Peter, whose name today is Francis, is so important: he with the bishops has the responsibility for ensuring the integrity of the faith and that it is passed on from generation to generation. They share this responsibility with pastors, who run parishes and schools, along with religious and other members of the laity. Responsibility for the school is then given to the principal, who then delegates the teaching of the faith to the teacher, who is also catechist. On a single student level, Sam, for example, has only seen the Pope on TV, and only met a bishop twice in his seven years. He’s met the pastor a number of times, and the principal probably a few too many times, but it is his teacher he knows best, because he spends most of the day of many days with her.
The point is that for the school to be Catholic we have to be able to trace a line back from what happens in Sam’s classroom to Jesus Christ, teaching on the mountainside in Galilee. And, because of this structure, Catholic educators can do this. One comforting and practical aspect is that everyone involved in Catholic education—from Pope Francis to the teachers—gives God many opportunities to get what he wants done by working through lots of people, because they share a common faith and worship the one God.
Celebration of the Sacraments and Prayer
Prayer and sacraments are key ways to meet, encounter, and live out a relationship with the living God. The Catholic school provides students many chances to talk with God, and to encounter him through liturgy and ultimately, after receiving the Sacrament of First Communion, to be nourished by the Body and Blood of Jesus. The physicality of sacraments, that we touch and consume the Body of Christ in a real way, and the reality that we can talk to our God and listen to him, are great gifts that set a Catholic school apart from, for example, public schools.
Teaching the Faith
Every student, whether Catholic or not, needs to hear the Gospel proclaimed and be taught the faith with the same level of professionalism, expertise, and resources as used in all other academic subjects. In fact, given the importance of faith to life, Catholic educators need to put more emphasis and resources into the teaching of the faith. Additionally, the school’s religion standards need to be included across the curriculum and integrated into the entire life and education of the school and understood by all educators, not just the religion teacher. Assessment of religious knowledge is also important so that teachers and the principal can be assured that students are learning the basic truths about Jesus as a context and reference point for their relationship with him.
Environment Permeated by the Gospel Spirit
Everything about the Catholic school, from its website to the facility, from discipline policy to parent events, is evangelistic in nature and must reflect the fullness of the Gospel. The signs and symbols on the walls or in classrooms teach faith, and images of the saints give witness. The fact that the name of Jesus is used in prayer regularly throughout the day makes God near and helps the Catholic school community grow in faith, day in and day out.
Today’s world is secular; it doesn’t like to hear the name of Jesus. In contrast, the Catholic school is an environment where faith is alive, visible, proclaimed, and honored.
The four elements of Catholic identity in schools do not happen by themselves. They are the result of the hard work and witness of those individuals who work in the ministry of Catholic school education. The Catholic identity of a school starts with each individual person: his or her relationship with the Lord, witness to the faith, and own service. After all, deep down we know that the witness of another’s faith, especially a teacher to student, is an essential element of an ongoing encounter with the Lord.
A big part of growing together for teachers is growing in pedagogical skills. Ongoing professional development, access to great resources, and strong leadership are keys to the growth and success of Catholic schools. Principals, pastors, and superintendents, along with national associations and education resource providers, work together to find the growth opportunities, and then identify, design, and implement quality professional development so that all can grow together.
The great results of Catholic schools (whether high graduation rates, academic achievement, or faith education) come about because Catholic school teachers educate the whole child—spirit, mind, and body—in an environment that reflects the Gospel. In such an environment, with qualified and committed teachers, students will learn and grow together and be prepared for faithful citizenship with an excellent education. Faith comes first, but academics follow. And the good news is that when schools do the faith part right, great academics indeed will follow!
Thomas W. Burnford, D.Min., is President/CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association.
Art credit: "St. Louise de Marillac students" copyrighted photo by Valerie Thomas Photography, posted here with permission.
This article originally appeared on pages 19-20 of the printed edition of the April-June 2017 issue.