Evangelization is the perennial task of the Church. One response to this mission has been Catholic education. It takes many forms in institutions, programs and activities, but essentially it is a participation in the teaching mission of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the heart and soul of Catholic education whose goal is nothing less than a truly holistic formation of persons who will be living witnesses to the faith.
Parents are the primary teachers of their children as the first catechists of the faith. But in a society grown ever more complex, parents look to external agencies for assistance—to the school—to help them to introduce their offspring to the human community and the Church.
My sister-in-law, Frances, delights in relating the following story about my nephew, Kyle.
While in kindergarten, Kyle used to practice spelling with magnetic letters on the refrigerator. Words like: cat, dog, dad and mom were proudly displayed for all to see.
One morning while getting ready for the day, Kyle bounded into the room with his arms outstretched. In his hands were three magnetic letters: G-O-D.
“Look what I spelled, Mom!” Kyle exclaimed with a proud smile on his face. “That’s wonderful!” My sister-in-law, Frances said. “Now go put them on the fridge so Dad can see when he gets home tonight.”
She thought, happily to herself, “that Catholic education is certainly having an impact.” Just then, a little voice called from the kitchen, “Mom? How do you spell ‘zilla’?”
This little encounter suggests the challenge enunciated by John Paul II: How are we to reveal Jesus Christ, God made man, to this multitude of children and young people, reveal Him not just in the fascination of a first fleeting encounter but through an acquaintance, growing deeper and clearer daily, with Him, His message, the plan of God that He has revealed, the call He addresses to each person, and the kingdom that He wishes to establish in this world with the “little flock” of those who believe in Him, a kingdom that will be complete only in eternity? How are we to enable them to know the meaning, the import, the fundamental requirements, the law of love, the promises and the hopes of this kingdom? [Catechesi Tradendae: #35]
Most parents, possessed with a uniquely integrated vision of learning and living, of valuing the eternal and the temporal, of the spiritual and the secular, turn to the Catholic school to help them introduce their children to the wealth of human wisdom and to the greater wisdom from God and about God.
My vision of Catholic education invites us to work together as a community of believers to nurture an integrated vision of faith, culture and life. Such an integration involves far more than displaying certain traditional identifying marks such as crucifixes or other religious images. While important in their own right, these must be viewed as contributing and pointing to something more fundamental with distinctive characteristics.
Among the characteristics, I would cite: fidelity to our tradition, laws and teaching; an awareness that God is always present to and working in the world of human experience; a never ending search for meaning; a profound commitment to social justice; centrality of the Eucharist and sensitivity to the liturgical rhythm of the Church’s life; a life of prayer and private morality; outreach to the larger civic community and rootedness in our local ecclesial context.
It should be obvious that these characteristics will be sustained only if those who share responsibility in Catholic institutions are committed to make our Catholic schools openly, consciously and unabashedly Catholic and Christian in every aspect of their operation. This commitment is reflected in four major ways:
- Teaching and Instruction (Didache): As important as the curriculum is, the integration of living and learning with the light of faith is realized most especially by the witness of those adult members of the school community whose professional competence and personal commitment are rooted in the spiritual, intellectual and moral values of our Catholic tradition. Faith is principally assimilated through contact with people whose family lives bear witness to that faith and whose example evokes the ultimate compliment, that of imitation.
- Community Building (Koinonia): The members of the Catholic school community demonstrate their interdependence and love by the way in which they interact with one another, how they welcome people of diversity, and how they react to authority and discipline. From this experience, pupils progressively catch the central message of care for each other, for the poor and for the things of God’s creation.
- Outreach and Service (Diaconia): The authentic experience of Christian community leads naturally to the service of others. The follower of Jesus is one who serves the rest. The Catholic school encourages students to become proactive in seeking out and responding to the needs, both spiritual and temporal, of individuals and other communities. The various gifts given of the Spirit are intended not only for individual recipients, but also for the common good.
- Prayer and Worship (Liturgia): A faith community comes together in worship, in prayer, in liturgy – expressions of an already-existing communion, which at the same time contributes to growth in faith. Again, Catholic school faculty and staff are models. They worship and pray together, offer praise and thanks, and ask for the strength to carry out their task of giving witness and service.
Together we share the task of developing schools into communities of faith in which the requirements of good citizenship will be learned in a vital way from the perspective of the Gospel and the teachings of the Church. We are bound together by a common faith and in common service.
☩ Frederick Henry