Catholic Schools Week

Building Community in a Culture of Individuals

By Eric Surat

The National Catholic Educational Association’s website currently has a live timer counting down to Catholic Schools’ Week, the way news outlets might have one leading up to the New Year, or ESPN for the Super Bowl. For many students Catholic Schools’ Week means going out of uniform, spirit days, and other fun activities. For teachers, it may also mean hosting a school open house. There are liturgical celebrations, often a Mass. But amidst all these activities, what is Catholic Schools’ Week really about?

The NCEA writes that since 1974 Catholic Schools’ Week has been a time to “focus on the value Catholic education provides to young people and its contributions to our church, our communities and our nation.” In an increasingly diverse world, and indeed an increasingly diverse Church, the value a Catholic education provides is increasingly difficult to define. By what metric are we to determine this value? Standardized test scores? College acceptance rates? Certainly there are non-Catholic schools that are as successful or potentially more so in these types of categories. What about faith-based metrics; participation in sacramental preparation, Mass attendance, retention of Church membership after graduation? Such metrics miss the growing population of Catholic school students who are, in fact, not members of the Catholic Church or who may not conform to traditional metrics of membership. Surely these students are still imbued with the charism of Catholic education.

It seems then, that a topic for reflection during Catholic Schools’ Week in 2019 could be a question not so much of value, but first, of identity. What makes Catholic education distinctive? Who are we that serve in the endeavor of Catholic education? What is uniquely Catholic in our methods and in our goals? What – beyond even Church membership – makes us Catholic? And why, in terms of education, does it matter that we are Catholic?

A possible answer to these questions could build on an understanding of Catholic schools as particular communities which inform the moral, ethical, and spiritual formation of young people. Catholic schools offer more than robust education. They offer an understanding of community and the human person that is grounded in a particular faith tradition; one that sees the human person as fundamentally in relationship with God, gifted with life, and deserving of love. This belief is at the core of Catholic anthropology. By identifying as Catholic, Catholic schools take on the task not only of academic formation but also the human formation of their students. And the task of forming adolescents has never been more challenging and dynamic than it is in 2019.

In her book Navigating Toward Adulthood: A Theology of Ministry with Adolescents, Theresa O’Keefe identifies several contemporary challenges facing adolescent development. One of the major challenges she describes in her second chapter, “Sailing Solo,” is a “cultural individualism” in the United States which “proclaims that the greatest accomplishments are achieved on one’s own. But these narratives promote a false vision, because they dismiss the essential role that relationships with others played in accomplishing the tasks.” She describes a cultural dynamic of self-interest in competition with relationships, as though they are caught in a zero-sum game. This dynamic can be particularly damaging to adolescents, who are focused on achievement and maximizing their value, all while not having fully realized their own cognitive development as adults. It sets up a world view in which adolescents understand success, and indeed personal value, as in direct competition with their peers’ from an early age. Therefore, identity is primarily formed by individual achievements or potential.

Catholic schools are in a unique position to challenge this kind of individualistic identity and replace it with a community that emphasizes relationships as essential for the human formation of adolescents. Catholic school identity, rather than one derived from achievement and success beyond one’s peers, is rooted in love and is made manifest by modeling that love and compassion for others. To use O’Keefe’s language once more, a Catholic school can be a “community [that] models the truth that we are never perfect – never free of mistakes – but always open to greater grace.” Catholic schools could function as a proving ground for the development of this relational consciousness, and could combat the notion that we work best when we work alone. In contemporary individualistic culture, this communal, relational identity may be the greatest offering of Catholic schools for adolescents.

THAT IS Being Catholic

What if every member of the school community looked at the goodness of their work as living out the school’s Catholic Identity?

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by Julie Dienno-Demarest

We are called to evangelize through witness (living out our faith) and sharing (explicitly spreading the Good News).  So often our instinct is to examine what else we can do. We focus on the call to conversion and re-evangelizing our colleagues through Faculty Faith Formation. We also have a tremendous opportunity to engage in the “new evangelization” to colleagues who have become distant from the faith by simply naming the ways in which we are already living God’s love in our life, work, and ministry.

Yet there are familiar ways by which evangelization happens: by the way we live God’s love in our daily life; by the love, example, and support people give each other…in the care we show to those most in need; and in the ways we go about our work. (Go and Make Disciples, 35)

Too often, the Catholic Identity of our schools is (mis)understood too narrowly by those who work with us. Our non-Catholic faculty and staff tend to see Catholic Identity as coming from the concrete experiences of morning prayer, retreats, liturgies, and catechesis from the Campus Ministry and the Theology Departments.  While those encounters are certainly essential, too many adults in the building compartmentalize our Catholicity as existing solely within these sources.

In reality, as professional religious educators, we know that this is simply not the case.  In reality, so many of our colleagues have been drawn to our schools because we live out this Catholic Identity in our way of being with one another and our students.  Put another way, our colleagues have an implicit knowledge of our schools’ Catholicity; we need to do a better job of explicitly naming what we implicitly know as true.

A caring school community is being Catholic (Acts 2:42).  Placing a student’s well-being ahead of academic expectations is being Catholic (Jn 15:12).  Coaches who prioritize sportsmanship and the well-being of their athletes above winning is being Catholic (Prov 24:17-18; Phil 2:3).  Teaching with mutual respect is being Catholic (CCC 1930).

What would happen if we respectfully invited our colleagues to recognize that their natural way of being in and contributions to our schools is being Catholic?  How might affirming that all goodness comes from God (James 1:17, CCC 843) foster a shared sense of accomplishing Catholic Identity?  Imagine if every faculty meeting began with a few minutes of specifically affirming the goodness and excellence that we see in the work of our colleagues and explicitly connecting those actions with the Catholicity of the school.

It is the responsibility of every member of the faculty and staff to support the vision and mission of the school.  Supporting the school’s vision and mission isn’t asking faculty and staff to be all things to all people, but it does require that we support one another as one body (1 Cor 12:20).  For example, what if our invitation to support Campus Ministry was rephrased as: “Would you rather assist student retreats by being personally present or by enthusiastically substituting for those colleagues who will be personally present”?

What if every member of the school community looked at the goodness of their work as living out the school’s Catholic Identity?

Julie Dienno-Demarest is a professional religious educator living in Houston, TX. She has previously served as a high school teacher and campus minister and was a contributing author and editor for a high school textbook series.