Catholic Schools: Witness to the Lord; Nurturing the Faith
by Karen Ristau, EdD
National Catholic Educational Association
Catholic school intends to proclaim the gospel message of Jesus Christ and
teach the content of the faith as an integral part of an excellent education.
Thus, Catholic elementary and secondary school education is designed to provide
a complete education, one that eventually leads students to consider who they
are and what it means to be a whole person with a sense of purpose in this
Good News of Jesus teaches the value of the person and that person's
inalienable dignity. The Catholic faith, therefore, holds a comprehensive
theory of human life in general and of the goodness of human beings as made in
the image and likeness of God. That belief transforms the school into a graced
institution. In this sense, the faith, presented as an academic subject in the
course of the day, cannot be seen as something that is "value-added" or a
"wrap-around"—to use two current buzzwords—to an already existing educational
program. The school is called to present an integration of the Gospel so that
faith becomes "all of a piece" in the life of the student. The schools fulfill
this obligation both by giving witness and nurturing the faith of the students
and others involved in the life of the school.
Witnessing to the Lord
institution itself becomes a living witness to the Lord in its purpose and its
programs, in the culture it creates, and in the relationships it establishes.
The idea of being a living witness emanates from the Gospel of Jesus Christ,
which in turn informs the very distinctive educational philosophy that guides
the school's purpose. Jesus, as proclaimed by the Catholic Church, is the person
at the heart of the Catholic educational ministry. He "is the foundation of the
whole educational enterprise. . . . The fact that in their own individual ways
all members of the school community share this Christian vision makes the
school, Catholic. . . . Principles of the Gospel in this manner become the
educational norms since the school then has them as its internal motivation and
final goal" (Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School [CS] [1977; repr. with new translation by Karen
M. Ristau, Washington, DC: National Catholic Educational Association, 2009], 34).
programs offered in the Catholic school curriculum address the entire life of
the person. Current government-sponsored educational programs that call for
either workplace readiness or college readiness are simply limiting (National
Governors Association, www.corestandards.org). There is no mention, nor can there be, of education for life,
how to live one's life, and especially how to understand the transcendent
purpose of this life, which brings us home to God. The holistic approach
offered by the Catholic school addresses the deep spiritual needs of students
as well as their intellectual and physical needs. In that sense, the Catholic
school curriculum is able to help students make a connection between faith and
culture. Because the school offers a comprehensive program, students begin
their learning in basic skills, for example, learning to read and write and to
conquer basic mathematic skills. Ultimately, they are prepared to understand
sophisticated and complex knowledge in science and world events through the
critical lens of faith. Urged to see God in all things, students begin to form
a Catholic worldview.
school creates a culture based on the distinctive characteristics of its
philosophy. Ideally, all persons are valued and respected because they are made
in the image and likeness of God. This philosophy requires excellence from the
teachers in their ministry and holds students responsible for living up to the
highest academic standards possible for the individual. Laxity is seen as
disrespectful of the gifts and talents given us by God. Similarly, this same
philosophy establishes behavioral expectations based on respect, which is manifested
in courtesy, thoughtfulness, truthfulness, and a certain decorum.
Nurturing the Faith
In the arena beyond the school doors, the Catholic school has the
opportunity to give particular witness to the demands of the Gospel. Catholics
often define themselves as the People of God, implying a sense of community, of
being for each other. Regina Bechtle pointed out that the history of God's
people demonstrates his preference for tribes, for people together in a group, as
opposed to highly individualistic societies (Regina Bechtle, "Giving the Spirit
a Home" in Called and Chosen, ed. Zeni
Fox and Regina Bechtle [Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005], 101). In the Catholic school, students learn to think about a way
of being together within the school and to understand and demonstrate a concern
for people in the community, especially those in need. The school's challenge
is to make this value a lived experience for students, not just a value taught.
The same may be said for instruction in principles of social justice. Catholic
schools do more than teach about human dignity. They do something about it.
School activities include numerous occasions for students to involve themselves
in service projects: visiting those confined to home, collecting goods for food
kitchens, and taking part in a myriad of other age-appropriate activities.
Catholic schools also pay attention to the relationships they
establish with parents, Church officials, governing committees, public school
leaders, and proper civil authorities. While Catholic schools are intrinsically
linked to the Church hierarchy (Code of
Canon Law: Latin-English Edition: New English Translation [Codex Iuris Canonici (CIC)] [Washington,
DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998], c. 803), the ideal relationship is one
of charity and support. Acknowledging the role of parents as the primary
educators of their children (Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Christian Education [Gravissimum Educationis (GE)], no. 3, in Vatican Council II: Volume 1: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar
Documents, ed. Austin Flannery [Northport, NY: Costello Publishing, 1996]),
Catholic schools encourage parent associations and advisory groups that create a
spirit of mutual support. Harmonious relationships with other educational
leaders and civic authorities extend our belief system to others.
Catholic schools aspire to nurture the faith of all those involved
in the educational project: the students, the teachers, and families who make
up the school community. The school curriculum presents the content and the
body of truths of the Catholic faith to all students attending the school, using
current and effective teaching methodologies. Beyond content, Catholic school teaching
understands the Person of Jesus as the heart of its mission and communicates
the living mystery of God in the development of attitudes, the maturity
necessary to make wise and life-giving choices, and the ability to think and
see as a Catholic. Catholic schools have the unique opportunity to involve
students in the daily and usual practices of the Catholic religion. Prayer
frames the school day and becomes a natural way of life for the students.
Frequent school-wide liturgies provide students with the celebration of the
Mass for their own spiritual needs and allow them to participate, where
appropriate, as lectors, greeters, song leaders, and Eucharistic ministers.
This brings the students close to life in the Holy Spirit and prepares them to
participate in the liturgical life of their parishes or campus ministry in the
The school program enriches and influences not only the students but
also the parents and teachers. Research done by James Coleman points out how
the value of being in a common culture, developing a sense of belonging, and building
what Coleman calls "human capital" enriches the educational experience for
students and families (James S. Coleman and Thomas Hoffer, Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities [New
York: Basic Books, 1987]). In a good school, all learn and teach to some
degree. The whole community helps every member grow in faith. Parents are drawn
into the religious activities of their children. The educational process
particularly informs and inspires the faith life of those who teach. The adage
"to teach is to learn" holds true. As teachers review the knowledge to be
presented and seek to give purpose, direction, and guidance to their students,
they open themselves to greater knowledge. Teachers are afforded the
opportunity to reflect and practice the virtues of acceptance, patience, and
understanding of others in their own actions with students and parents. Here
the faith guides the teacher's vocation. In this arrangement, "the Spirit is at
work in every person" (CS, 18).
Witnessing and nurturing the faith, then, are two important
components of the Catholic school. They must not remain abstract concepts but must
be promoted by the entire school community: students, teachers, and parents.
The inalienable dignity of every person must be experienced in the life of the
school. This is not easy work. The community that calls the school into
existence—bishops, pastors, parents, administrators, and teachers—needs to
speak anew the foundational philosophy of Catholic education and speak it
convincingly. To be a living witness and to nurture the faith of those involved
in the school community requires sustained attention to the Gospel of Jesus,
which names all people as those made in the image and likeness of God.
© 2013, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All
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