The first week of May every year marks Catholic Education Week across Ontario. It’s a week to both celebrate and reflect on publicly funded Catholic Education throughout the province. It’s a time to celebrate where we have come from and where we are at, and it offers the unique opportunity to reflect on where we are going.
Having grown up in Ontario’s publicly funded Catholic system – I was in the first wave of students to be fully-funded through grade 13 (yes, I am that old), and now with over 20-years experience as a teacher in the same system, I’ve spent more time in Catholic Schools than anywhere else. With a changing perspective from student to teacher, I’ve witnessed our Catholic schools morph into quasi-public schools where it’s at least permissible to talk about God, if not encouraged.
I have to make the confession right up front… I came of age in the post-Vatican II era, where the spirit of Vatican II was alive and well in our Catholic school system (vestiges of which still linger in our corridors). That said, my Catholic adult self was formed during the St. John Paul II era, followed by Benedict XVI, along with the push-back that has come with the Francis effect. Needless to say, I’ve seen and participated in both extremes of the pendulum swing – for good and for bad.
Personally, I think it’s time we rediscover the Catholic identity of schools.
If we are not to be seen as simply public schools with a Cross (and not even a Crucifix) on the wall, where the curriculum, environment and ethos are no different from the school across the street; then we need to return to what makes Catholic schools distinct – essentially, what makes Catholic schools Catholic:
· Church Teaching
· Teacher Formation
The Catechism of the Catholic Church plainly states: The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself. (CCC 1324) As such, the Eucharist (and through it, Christ) needs to be the focus of Catholic education.
How can this be done? How can we make the Eucharist the centre of life in our Catholic schools? First we need to do a reality check – Catholic students, for the most part, do not attend Mass on Sunday. Over the years my own informal polling tells me that less than 25% of the students in front of me attend Mass on a regular basis. If we want the Eucharist to be the centre of life in our Catholic schools, then we need to show and teach our kids that it truly is the source and summit of our lives. With Mass usually happening monthly in our Catholic schools, students need to be taught and shown the sacredness of the liturgy. Mass can no longer be seen as Tiny Talent Time; a sing-a-long of songs that have no meaning to the season; a showcase for student musicians, artwork or social-justice initiatives. These are all great things and rightfully need to be celebrated; but they should never overshadow the greatness of the Eucharist.
As a quick addition to this, in the schools where the Eucharist is present in chapel Tabernacles, it should be honoured and venerated. Far too often the chapel is in a dusty corner of the school, even with the door locked, hiding Christ of the students. As if to add insult to injury, some chapels are being used as meeting or storage rooms. If Catholic education truly is to be Christ-centred, then we need to make sure Christ, in the Eucharist, is at the community’s centre.
From this Eucharistic foundation, love of the other sacraments will flow. The other sacrament that our students will come into contact with in our Catholic schools is the sacrament of Reconciliation. Traditionally offered during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, this often forgotten yet beautiful sacrament needs to be properly explained and modeled for our students (i.e.: students should see their teachers partaking of the sacrament, not hear what they are confessing). As a sacrament, a conduit of God’s saving Grace, Reconciliation needs to be given the honour it deserves, and shouldn’t be taking place (as unfortunately happens) in a broom closet or storage room.
As Christians, St. Paul calls on us to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess 5:16-18). The idea that we should ‘pray without ceasing’ doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to be on our knees 24/7, but rather that prayer needs to be in integral part of our day and interwoven into everything that we do. For this very reason, at the top of the whiteboard at the front of my classroom I have written the Benedictine motto Ora et Labora – Prayer and Work. I have done this to remind my students of the two oars that are meant to propel us through life.
Our prayer life can, and must take on many different forms: personal and communal; formal and informal. There are all kinds of benefits to be had in having a vibrant prayer life that incorporates these different elements. Sadly, however, the vast majority of our students have never been taught how to pray beyond the rote recital of what I like to call The Big Three of the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be.
There is a vast treasure trove of traditional prayers and devotions, that have unfortunately remained a mystery to the average once-a-week Catholic.
Since the Pontificate of St. John Paul II, the Rosary seems to be making a comeback in our Catholic schools. In many parishes there is a Rosary Apostolate that visits the local schools, teaching the Mysteries and walking the students through how to pray this great devotional prayer. I have also been blessed to have a guest introduce my students to the Living Rosary, a multi-sensory prayer that brings the intercession of our Blessed Mother to life.
Other great prayer traditions can also be added to these standards. Depending on the timing of class, I will teach my students the Angelus, a wonderful meditation on the Annunciation and Conception of Christ. Also, my prayer selection will vary depending on the Liturgical season, with great Advent or Lenten prayers that highlight the sacredness of those seasons. Finally, I will also teach my students the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel to give them courage as they face the trepidations of the 21st Century.
These communal prayers are all great for the classroom, but our students also need to be taught how to deepen their prayer lives once they walk out our door. For this I have begun the practice of a combined Lectio Divina and Eucharistic Adoration in our school chapel. This has taken some formal teaching so that the kids understand how to formulate their own personal prayer in preparation for the Word of God, and even more work to teach them how to sit silently with Christ. If every you want to see a teenager twitch, force them to sit silently without their phone for even the shortest length of time. Starting off slowly, I will have them sit in silence before the Tabernacle for only 2 or 3 minutes, but by the end of the semester they will be up to 7 to 10 minutes. The students always tell me shutting the world off is the hardest thing they have ever done, but also the most personally rewarding – to the point where they ask me weekly if we’re going to the chapel.
Catholic Social Teaching seems to be the hallmark of Catholic education, yet you will have noticed that I list it third.
Is Catholic Social Teaching important and in need of being an integral part of the Catholic school system? Yes – but only if done for the right reasons.
In staff meeting after staff meeting the question is always asked… What makes us different from the public school across the road? If the answer is solely based on how much the school has raised for charity or which social causes it promotes – then really the answer is not much. Our public school counterparts are equally good at raising funds for the cause and ensuring that the marginalized are supported and cared for. This is good humanitarianism.
The difference lies in why we do these things in a Catholic school. Our charity (derived from the Latin Caritas or love) is based on the inherent dignity possessed by each and every human because they are made in the image of God. It is this notion that we don’t do good simply for good’s sake, but that we do good for God’s sake, that needs to be the driving force behind the good works done in our Catholic schools.
Once our students come to understand that answering Christ’s call to help those in need is answering Christ himself, we spark a flame of love in their hearts that will hopefully burn for a lifetime.
In the 21st Century, this is always the tough one. In many ways being Catholic in today’s society is much like it was in the time of Christ - very counter-cultural. It takes a brave soul to stand out in the crowd and profess a belief in Church teachings, founded on Christ’s words and actions, formed by over 2,000 years of Sacred Tradition.
It is too easy to gloss over or simply ignore the more demanding of Christ’s teaching in the face of everything students and teachers are bombarded with in mainstream media (trust me, I know this, as I’ve been guilty of it myself). Yet, if we truly love our students, we need to present them with the whole of Church teaching in its totality. This said, we do need to recognize the students that are in front of us, addressing issues that are relevant to their lives at this time.
When presenting Church teaching, we need to present it as just that – Church teaching, and not our personal opinion. Also, it is of great importance to ensure that God loves us so much that He has given us the gift of Free-Will, and that Church teaching needs to be used to form our conscience, and that the ultimate judgement of our/their souls lies with God and not their religion teacher.
None of what has been mentioned above can happen without proper teacher formation. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that this is the missing link which can cause the whole house of cards to fall down. Often the requisite basic religious education training that is needed to teach in Catholic schools is not much more than a rubber stamp, a hoop to jump through to get a job. Like everything else in today’s world, many young teachers are looking for an option that allows them to get what is needed with the least amount of effort (again, I re-iterate, this goes way beyond teacher formation).
Teachers cannot teach properly if they are uncomfortable with the course material. This is why over the past 22 years I have never darkened the door of the wood shop or a science lab – both myself and my principal know that the results would be disastrous, with a call to 9-1-1 being the best case scenario. Yet, year after year we have teachers from Kindergarten to Grade 12 who are asked to teach the faith with a very rudimentary knowledge of Church teachings. And, as if to add insult to injury, there are a number of non-practicing “Catholic” teachers charged with passing on the faith to our children. In my mind this is tantamount to asking someone who doesn’t speak French to teach French Immersion.
Having spent the better part of the past 40 years in the Catholic school system as both student and teacher, I know that it is far from perfect, but that there are also many bright lights shining in the darkness. It has been a couple of generations of publically funded Catholic education to get us to where we are today, and it will take a couple more for Catholic education to fully develop its identity.
Much like ourselves, our personal identity is constantly growing and changing, and so is that of Catholic schools. Much like developing our own personal Catholic identity, our Catholic school identity is not so much about where we are coming from, but where we are going to.