How to Save the Soul of Our Catholic Schools

Seven_Liberal_Arts_by_Francesco_Pesellino

“How can we make our school more Catholic?” This is a real question schools ask, some with perplexity. Is it a new curriculum? Better religion classes? Having the kids come to Mass? The answer is vital for the future of Catholic education. The sociologist Christian Smith notes, from his extensive research on the life of young Catholics, that “we cannot report that Catholic schooling and youth group participation have robust effects on emerging adult faith and practice.”

It is obvious to just about everyone that Catholic education currently is sliding into free-fall. As Smith further reports: “Between 1964 and 1984, 40 percent of American Catholic high schools and 27 percent of Catholic elementary schools closed their doors” and the rate has not decreased. Those that remained open “proved less well grounded in the Catholic faith and therefore less capable of passing on a robust Catholicism to their students.” This reality should lead to some serious soul searching among Catholic educators and clergy. We need to do things differently!

We tend to think of the “Catholic” in Catholic schools like sprinkles that are added on top of an ice cream cone. What makes a school Catholic is religion class and an occasional Mass, but otherwise a school is just a school. Our teachers and administrators have been formed in a secular model and don’t always know how to approach Catholic education as a distinct method of formation. There is not a bureaucratic solution from a committee or focus group that can save a school. Instead, we need a spiritual and intellectual renewal.

The Catholic faith must be the heart and soul of the school, not an add on. A few accidental elements, however important they may be, are not enough to make a school Catholic. Catholicism should permeate everything the school does, not in an exterior and artificial way, but by naturally shaping the approach to education and formation. There are two general ways of conceiving this. First, the school should form a distinctively Catholic environment or culture. Second, the curriculum must flow from and lead to a Catholic worldview.

On the first point, Pope Benedict XVI made clear that “Catholic schools should therefore seek to foster that unity between faith, culture and life which is the fundamental goal of Christian education” (“Address to the Participants in the Convention of the Diocese of Rome,” June 11, 2007). Note, the goal of education is not employment or practical skills. It is to unite one’s faith and life, to provide integration that should last into adulthood. We could say that Catholic education should teach us how to be a Christian in the world, or to go even deeper, how to be a saint.

Secondly, faith should shape the curriculum, not by artificially trying to make the content Catholic, but by uniting all subjects within a Catholic world view. One great example of this can be found in Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake, in which he shows that the logical and mathematical structure of the world flows from the Logos, God’s own truth through which he created the world. He shows how numbers and music reflect this order. Another example can be found in Simon Weil’s relation of mathematics to prayer, which shows how studies affect the soul in a way that flows into the spiritual life.

Here are some practical points of what must be done to make a school more Catholic. Most of them are actually quite simple.

  1. First, just as the Eucharist is the source and summit of the faith, so it must be the heart of the school. The culture of the school should form around the rhythm of the liturgy. At a minimum the school should have Mass weekly, but daily Mass more than anything else would make the Eucharist a priority in our Catholic formation. Eucharistic adoration should also occur on a weekly basis, teaching the kids how to adore and honor Jesus in the Eucharist.
  1. The next most important element consists in the witness of teachers and administrators. They embody the faith in their example and way of teaching and leading. Pope Benedict taught that teachers “must also be ready to lead the commitment made by the entire school community to assist our young people, and their families, to experience the harmony between faith, life, and culture” (“Address to Catholic College Presidents,” April 17, 2008). Hiring must include mission fit and dedication to forming children in the faith. Formation for current teachers is essential to help them grow in their relationship with God and knowledge of the Catholic tradition.
  1. In addition to teachers, we need the witness of clergy and religious as an active presence in the school. Their role will make clear that the school exists as part of the Church’s mission of evangelization. Their presence also will plant seeds for vocations. How will children discover a vocation with a model to guide them? Two dioceses with the highest rate of vocations have all of their high school religion courses taught by priests.
  1. Even secular people expect that a faith-based school will provide strong human formation. If our graduates are not more virtuous and mature than students graduating from the public schools, we have fundamentally failed. Without this formation, how else will our students navigate the challenges of our culture, let alone exercise leadership? Students also need to experience Jesus in a living way, not only in prayer, but also by encountering the poor. Human formation and service should make the teaching of the faith concrete. If it is just words in a book, it will be quickly discarded, as happens more often than not.
  1. Continuing this point, another crucial way of making the faith come alive entails teaching our students how to pray. Prayer is where we meet God most directly. Pope Benedict made this point very clearly at the beginning of Deus Caritas Est: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Do our students encounter Christ or do they just pass a test on doctrine? We have to teach them to pray, especially through lectio divina, where they learn to enter into a conversation with God, listening to his voice in Scripture and responding to him.
  1. Catholic education is part of a long tradition. One of the first Christian schools opened in the second century, the Catechetical School of Alexandria, with teachers such as Clement and Origen, taught not only the faith, but also philosophy and mathematics. After the fall of Rome, Boethius and Cassiadorus advocated for Christian, classical education, writing textbooks on the trivium and quadrivium. The Church also founded the first universities. Catholics have access to an overwhelming educational, artistic, literary, and cultural legacy. But, graduates of Catholics schools generally don’t encounter this tradition much and if they do it will be remote and abstract. As Christopher Dawson argues in The Crisis of Western Education, we have to immerse our students in the living legacy of Christian culture so they can be formed by it, live it, and pass it on to the next generation.
  1. Education is largely a matter of language, which we use to communicate and express ideas (this is true even outside the liberal arts). Latin is the Church’s language and learning it opens a doorway to Catholic history, tradition, and liturgy. It helps to impart a distinct identity, including being able to pray in common with other Catholics throughout the world. Practically speaking, it sheds light on the English language as at least thirty percent of its vocabulary comes from Latin and another thirty from French (which itself originates in Latin). Also, Latin helps us to grasp the basics of grammar more easily than through English (probably because of English’s much simpler grammar).
  1. The arts provide immersion into the Catholic tradition. The Church has an unrivaled literary, musical, and artistic tradition. As we emphasize the technical elements of education, it is important to remember that deep thinking and expression are something that computers will never master. The liberal arts will be more relevant than ever with the rise of robotics! Literature helps situate students within the story of the Catholicism and to explore moral and spiritual themes in an embodied way. Building on Latin, Gregorian Chant provides a simple and beautiful way to help form a contemplative mind and it also laid the foundation for the development of classical music. The visual arts are essential for cultivating an imagination informed by the faith. Students should be familiar with the great, Catholic artists and their works.
  1. Immersion in the beauty of the tradition should overflow into school Masses. School Masses are not known for their reverence or beauty, especially in music. If students learn to be prayerful in school, this should express itself primarily at Mass, as the children will know how to enter into its mysteries to meet God there. The homily should confidently lead the children into the mystery of the liturgy and its readings, reserving a conversation and Q&As for their increased presence in the classroom.
  1. Finally, the school should look Catholic. The environment should be enriched by Catholic symbols and the beauty of Catholic art. Archbishop Michael Miller, in The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools, expresses this point well:

If Catholic schools are to be true to their identity, they should try to suffuse their environment with this delight in the sacramental. Therefore they should express physically and visibly the external signs of Catholic culture through images, signs, symbols, icons and other objects of traditional devotion. A chapel, classroom crucifixes and statues, signage, celebrations and other sacramental reminders of Catholic ecclesial life, including good art which is not explicitly religious in its subject matter, should be evident.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Catholic schools must be more Catholic or they will not be differentiated enough from public schools to survive. As we witness an enormous crisis of public education, we should reflect on how we have followed these schools in their methods to our own demise. The Church has its own legacy of education, which has been marginalized in the last fifty years, but which must be revitalized. If we truly embrace our faith in our own schools, in forming a Catholic culture and worldview, we can save our schools and begin to shape the culture more broadly through the lives of our graduates. By saving the soul of our schools, we’ll help save our own souls!

Editor’s note: Pictured above are four of the seven liberal arts painted by Francesco Pesellino.

R. Jared Staudt

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R. Jared Staudt works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the Augustine Institute and the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

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