What makes a school Catholic? Is a school Catholic because it exists with the permission of the bishop of the diocese, or it is a member of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), or it is an extension or an outreach of a parish community, or it has a crucifix in every classroom and religious artwork throughout the building, or because its curriculum includes religious studies, or because the pattern of its practices align with the National Standards and Benchmarks of Effective Catholic Schools, or because Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation are celebrated for the student body during the school year?
For sure, each of these elements is a marker of a Catholic School. But I dare to say that the most decisive element of a Catholic school is the religious character of its personnel.
When the administrator(s) and a critical mass of faculty members embrace Jesus as their center (rather than mention him as an afterthought or an add-on), his spirit infuses the campus. It becomes evident to all that it is the primary purpose, consistent attitude, and intentional goal of the school to guide students to know, love, and serve God. When a Jesus-centered mindset drives every endeavor, action, decision, and response, self-disciplined students, who seek to develop their personal best, emerge. These hallmarks of a Catholic school (a Christ-centered environment, self-disciplined students, and academic achievement) are rooted in the religious character of its teachers.
“Back in the day” Catholic schools were predominately staffed by men or women religious whose distinctive garb was, itself, an outward reminder of God. It seemed as though these walking icons were everywhere, had eyes in the back of their veil-covered heads, and appeared where you least expected them! While students labored over final examinations, they observed their teachers fingering rosary beads suspended from their waists. At precisely the opportune moment, Scripture quotes seemed to slip from their lips effortlessly. Oftentimes, students could observe their teacher clutching the large crucifix that hung from the neck. Teacher body-posture, classroom decorations, routines, consistency in procedures, and high expectations set a tone. The school day was hemmed in with prayer or sacred ritual. At morning prayer students consecrated the day to God, and at dismissal they examined their consciences and made an act of contrition.
An intentional awareness of God punctuated the entire school day. For instance, long before marketers raised awareness of “WWJD?” via bracelets, posters, and such, these teachers motivated student decision-making by remarking, “What would Jesus do …or say…or desire?” “How will this choice contribute to the greater glory of God and the salvation of your soul?” “Live Jesus!” On every heading of student papers and copybook pages students drew a cross followed by “JMJ,” “JMJAT,” “AMDG” or an acronym-inscription related to the charism of the religious congregation. In my elementary school, every hour on the hour, a designated student rang a bell and intoned: “Pardon me, Sister. Pardon me, Class. It is time to bless the hour.” All activity ceased. The student then said, “Let us remember that we are in the holy presence of God.” The class responded: “Let us adore God’s divine majesty.” Together we prayed the “Glory be” and promptly the lesson continued wherever it had been interrupted. Wherever students happened to be at 12 noon, inside or outside the building, they stood still and prayed the Angelus formula while the Angelus bells rang in the distance. When emergency sirens were heard, the class prayed an aspiration or formula that asked God’s assistance for the unknown person in need. When Church bells tolled for a funeral, class stopped for a moment of silence and/or to pray for the deceased, “Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.”
Additionally, religious instruction occurred daily, usually as the first session of the day. And, in many schools, the afternoon session began with a 15 minute period of story-telling that applied faith to action. Nothing else trumped Religion class! Some textbooks even referenced Catholic culture. Then, too, there were rituals of the liturgical seasons (Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost), devotions to Mary (rosary, May Procession), Eucharistic devotion (frequent Mass, Forty Hours’ visits to the Blessed Sacrament, Benediction), Stations of the Cross, litanies and novenas, and regular participation in the Sacrament of Penance. The combination of all of these kinds of customs created a culture, an ambiance, a Godly reverence that pervaded every aspect of schooling. This culture underscored the sense that the institution was a divine enterprise and its teachers were the custodians of its spiritual nature and essential to its effectiveness.
The Catholic school was essentially an extension of convent or priory life. School practices, priorities, and order mirrored the lifestyle of the vowed religious. By 1970, the numbers of men and women religious in the schools declined tremendously. If their shoes were filled by lay counterparts, who had themselves been educated in the kind of Catholic school just described, the Catholic Identity or Catholic Culture continued in a similar fashion or adapted modern expressions that created the same end: a faith-infused environment; a divine, God-centered enterprise where activities reflected the spirituality of the teachers.
Over time, elements like a competitive market, certification requirements, and national standards impacted school design. Program demands increased; the length of the school day/year did not! Faith-related cultural customs were deleted. Simultaneously post-Vatican II faculty members—though faithful and faith-filled, well-educated, practicing Catholics—had no experience of schooling within “the Catholic bubble” and that style of spirituality was foreign to them. Consequently, maintaining or fostering Catholic identity or Catholic culture relied all the more on the religious character of school personnel.