Family Resource - Karen Ristau

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Catholic Schools: Witness to the Lord; Nurturing the Faith

by Karen Ristau, EdD
National Catholic Educational Association

The 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 present time.

The 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

The 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).

The 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, 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.

The 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 future.

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.

Copyright © 2013, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.