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.