Catholic Schools Week: It’s All About Getting People to Heaven

Who are the Catholic educators who will embrace orthodoxy and serve with truth-oriented compassion in that noble task of guiding their students heavenward?

St. John Bosco, “Father and Teacher of Youth”
St. John Bosco, “Father and Teacher of Youth” (photo: Register Files)

As a longtime Catholic teacher and writer of resources for Catholic schools, I always get excited around this time of year because of the annual celebration of the National Catholic Educational Association’s Catholic Schools Week, which runs Jan. 26 to Feb. 1 this year.

It’s a good week to look to the example (and implore the intercession) of saints who were important to Catholic education, in order to support the mission of Catholic schools in forming our students as current disciples and future saints themselves.

Exemplary figures such as Saint John Bosco, Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, Blessed Basile Moreau, Saint John Neumann, newly-canonized (as of October) Saint John Henry Newman, Saint Jean-Baptiste de la Salle, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, and many other saints fashioned their lives according to the Lord’s will. In doing so, they facilitated the development of a Catholic educational framework that is geared toward serving the Kingdom of God. What they may not have foreseen was a 21st-century circumstance in which most Catholic schools are staffed by members of the laity, and therefore in need of even more intentional missionary discipleship, so that faculty, staff and administrators can give what they have when it comes to their own proper preparation to serve their students.

Almost 55 years ago, the Oct. 28, 1965, document Gravissimum Educationis, the declaration on Christian education from the Second Vatican Council, affirmed that the Catholic school functions “to order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life, and man is illumined by faith.” And going on 31 years ago, Pope Saint John Paul II offered the following in his April 16, 1979, address to the NCEA during an apostolic visit to the United States:

But no Catholic school can be effective without dedicated Catholic teachers, convinced of the great ideal of Catholic education. The Church needs men and women who are intent on teaching by word and example – intent on helping to permeate the whole educational milieu with the spirit of Christ. This is a great vocation, and the Lord himself will reward all who serve in it as educators in the cause of the word of God. In order that the Catholic school and the Catholic teachers may truly make their irreplaceable contribution to the Church and to the world, the goal of Catholic education itself must be crystal clear. (Message to the National Catholic Educational Association of the United States, April 16, 1979).

This was six months to the day before the publication of John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation of Oct. 16, 1979, Catechesi Tradendae: On Catechesis in Our Time. It is no coincidence that this saintly pope lauded his similarly saintly precursor’s devotion to faithful Catholic education, in declaring for instance that “my venerated predecessor Paul VI served the Church’s catechesis in a particularly exemplary fashion” (Catechesi Tradendae, 2).

The 21st century world and the often aggressively unrelenting inroads of secularism will continue to pose numerous challenges to the role that Catholic education ought to play in leading students to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Especially in the areas of sexual morality, the dignity of all human life from the moment of conception until natural death, and the allure of materialism, Catholic schools do well to present an alternative message to the world’s specious ideologies. In an information-rich but wisdom-poor age rife with steadily maddening confusion, in which entertainment has replaced reflection, the advancement of orthodoxy (the proper reading of doctrine and dogma) is perhaps more critical than ever before.

Catholic schools must redouble their efforts to proclaim that which is true, good and holy, in their approaches to both everyday and pandemic dilemmas. Otherwise, they will not be able to present a substantial, let alone rhetorically convincing, distinction when compared with any other educational institution; rather, they will end up simply being private institutions wherein the Catholic faith constitutes fodder for ridicule and disregard, to say nothing of the decentralization of the sacramental life within the community.

Catholic schools that thrive on furthering Saint John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” will endure, as will those institutions that otherwise stand in the breach against increasingly popular notions of the human person that defy objective principles of reality. As one example of a pastoral approach imbued with clarity with charity, I recommend the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education’s 2019 document Male and Female He Created Them”: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education, which was welcomed by Bishop Michael Barber, the chairman of the USCCB’s Committee for Catholic Education, in his statement of June 11, 2019.

Every era in the last 2,000 years has been a saint-making time in its own way, and as we find ourselves amid the conclusion of two decades of the 21st century, our times really are no different in that respect. Who are the Catholic educators who will embrace orthodoxy and serve with charity in that noble task of guiding their students heavenward?

This courageous commitment will come with manifestations of exclusion and even reprisals for patiently and steadfastly standing up for the Gospel. Every single one of the saints mentioned within this piece faced friction and setbacks in some manner or another when they strived to promote faithful Catholic education.

Let us conclude with this sobering yet ardently inspirational passage from Saint John Paul II during the 1998 ad limina visit of some American bishops to the Vatican:

The greatest challenge to Catholic education in the United States today, and the greatest contribution that authentically Catholic education can make to American culture, is to restore to that culture the conviction that human beings can grasp the truth of things, and in grasping that truth can know their duties to God, to themselves and their neighbors. In meeting that challenge, the Catholic educator will hear an echo of Christ’s words: ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’ (John 8:32). The contemporary world urgently needs the service of educational institutions which uphold and teach that truth is ‘that fundamental value without which freedom, justice and human dignity are extinguished’” (Veritatis Splendor, 4) (Address of the Holy Father Pope John Paul II to the Bishops of the Ecclesiastical Regions of Chicago, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee (USA), on Their “Ad Limina” Visit of May 30, 1998, 3).

In addition to the readings that I have recommended here for both prayerful and practical encouragement, I likewise recommend the piece “Ten Patron Saints for Catholic Classrooms” by Barb Szyszkiewicz at Today’s Catholic Teacher, as well as Leila Miller and Trent Horn’s book Made This Way: How to Prepare Kids to Face Today’s Tough Moral Questions (Catholic Answers Press, 2018).