“Since, therefore, the Catholic school can be such an aid to the fulfillment of the mission of the people of God and to the fostering of the dialogue between the Church and mankind, to the benefit of both, it retains even in our present circumstances the utmost importance.” — Gravissimum Educationis (Declaration on Christian Education, 1965)
While much attention has been given to the issue of Catholic identity at colleges and universities over the last several decades, many of these institutions educating elementary-, middle- and high-school students are also assessing their priorities in transmitting the faith.
Witness to the Gospel
Kevin Kiefer, 37, just completed his third year as principal of Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman Catholic High School, home to more than 1,300 students. Since he started working at Bishop Gorman, one of his primary focuses has been on increasing Catholic identity in the school. “Without a clear focus on Jesus Christ, Church teaching and a Christian, anthropological operating philosophy, Catholic schools run the risk of becoming elitist private schools,” Kiefer believes.
In keeping with the U.S. bishops’ recommendation to Catholic school principals to “recruit teachers … who can contribute to the achievement of the school’s Catholic identity and apostolic goals” (National Directory for Catechesis, 2005), Kiefer and his administrative team take the hiring and training of educators seriously.
“It is important that those who work in a Catholic school are committed to the mission of the Church and are living witnesses to the truth we profess,” Kiefer explained. This idea of Catholic educators giving authentic witness to the faith was encouraged by Pope Benedict XVI, who said, “The central figure in the work of educating, and especially in education in the faith, which is the summit of the person’s formation … is specifically the form of witness” (“Address to the Participants in the Ecclesial Diocesan Convention of Rome,” 2005).
“The other critically important piece to make Catholic identity a priority is to ensure that the faculty and staff are well formed,” Kiefer elaborated. To do this, he and his staff are taking steps to ensure that their annual retreat day focuses on prioritizing Catholic identity, as well as working on best practices for ongoing spiritual and catechetical formation for the adults on campus.
Domestic Church’s Role
In addition to following best practices in hiring and training superior Catholic educators, other Catholic schools are turning to alternative models to help increase Catholic identity in their institutions.
Two of Douglas and Andrea Brookshire’s three children, Lilly and Hudson, ages 10 and 7, attend St. John Bosco Academy, a “hybrid” school that blends home instruction and traditional classroom instruction, in Suwanee, Ga. One way the school prioritizes Catholic identity is by supporting its Catholic parents, who have “the first responsibility for the education of their children” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2223).
“When we discovered the Catholic hybrid school model, it gave us exactly what we’d been longing for — more time together as a family and a solid Catholic education,” Andrea Brookshire described. “SJBA was founded by a group of families who felt passionate about not losing their Catholic identity for the sake of a good education.”
The Brookshire family has found that the blend of home and classroom instruction enables their family to remain close and function better as a “domestic church,” which is the phrase the Church often uses to describe the family.
Through student-body prayer, a monthly focus on a particular virtue, regular confession, pro-life activities and special feast-day celebrations, Lilly recognizes the benefits of attending a school marked by its Catholicity: “At a Catholic school, my faith has deepened by hearing other teachers and friends share their faith with me.”
These schools’ missions support what Pope St. John Paul II wrote: “Catholic education is above all a question of communicating Christ, of helping to form Christ in the lives of others” (“Message to the National Catholic Educational Association,” 1979).
Consequently, if Catholic schools are not imbuing a Catholic worldview and communicating Christ to their students, they fail to look much different than their private and public-school counterparts.
For Rosemary Anderson, 30, principal at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Classical School in Denver, forming Christ in the lives of her students is paramount in helping the school achieve its objective to put Catholic identity at the forefront.
“Above all else, our goal is to have our students learn to know, love and serve God,” Anderson described. “Catholic identity should shape all other parts of the school.”
Jonah Lippert, 26, tries to ensure that Catholic identity shapes his own classroom teaching of Latin at Our Lady of Lourdes. He also appreciates the school’s emphasis on infusing a Catholic worldview. “I do feel that the administration makes Catholic identity a priority,” Lippert acknowledged. “It has consistently striven to, both through personal administrative witness and through its organized priorities, stimulate a constant seeking of closeness to God by the faculty, through prayer and sacramental life, and to encourage fuller integration of the truths of our teaching specialties into a universal Catholic perspective.”
The Catholic schools making Catholic identity a priority in education are not simply institutions to be marveled at, but to be emulated.
Bishop James Conley, shepherd of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., himself a convert to the Catholic faith during his educational years, advises all Catholics to get involved in the effort to enhance Catholic education for young people.
“All Catholics have a responsibility to educate our children, who will become our future priests, religious sisters and Catholic families,” Bishop Conley noted. “We need successful Catholic schools because the world desperately needs faithful Catholics.”
When asked what steps schools can take to help focus more on Catholic identity, he recommended, “The first thing administrators and faculty need to do is to pray for our Catholic schools, to entrust them to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to ask parents to do the same. We need to make the sacramental life a focus of what we do. We need to make Mass, adoration and confession a regular part of the school community. After that, the best thing we can do is to ensure that every child who comes to a Catholic school is looked at from an eternal perspective — and that the salvation of our students and their families comes before everything else.”
Katie Warner writes from California.
Her website is CatholicKatie.com.