Passion and Purpose in Catholic Education

 participates in a two-day retreat seeking to provide input for a new strategic plan for Catholic schools. (LeAnn Lakin/photo)

Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr. participates in a two-day retreat seeking to provide input for a new strategic plan for Catholic schools. (LeAnn Lakin/photo)

Ed. note – Nearly 150 pastors, principals, teachers, parents and diocesan personnel took part in a two-day retreat last week to provide their input into an ongoing process to create a strategic plan for Catholic schools. Bishop Johnston, who took part in the entire retreat, provided direction with the following opening vision statement:

I was asked to begin our days together by sharing thoughts on my “vision” for our Catholic Schools. So, at the outset, let me tell you what my vision is not. It is not an “I have all the answers” vision. I don’t have all the answers. But, it’s also not an “I stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night” vision either. I do have some ideas and knowledge that come from experience and study and prayer.

The Gospel of Jesus and the Church give us the vision of what a Catholic School is supposed to be. I don’t have to reinvent that. However, that is something we need to know, to study and determine how we are going to achieve in our parishes. Part of our strategic planning ought to be about executing with excellence the Church’s vision for what a Catholic School is supposed to be. Many of you were given what I call the “little brown book” [reference to The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools, by Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB]; the book that compiles the essence of what makes a Catholic School distinct according to the official authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church. The key to our success is creating schools that make this happen; and a key to executing this vision is getting the right people, namely, the faculty and staff that are unequivocally on board. People who not only believe in Catholic Education, but believe passionately in Jesus Christ and the teaching of the Catholic Church, and find their joy in loving him, following him and making him known. This begins with the principal, because she or he has a key role in hiring, forming, and leading the team to live and realize the vision.

This does not mean someone has to always be talking about Jesus and trying to convert somebody, or be some sort of “super Catholic.” No, all I am talking about is that we have people who are passionately and unapologetically striving to follow Jesus and carry out their personal vocations in obedience to him. They strive to love him and accompany the students entrusted to them in following him.

A vision is in part what we see ahead when we look from a higher point, like a mountain top. What lies ahead and how do we prepare for it? My talk this morning is more focused on this part of the vision—where are we, and what are the signs of the times that we must address? When we look ahead, what do we see and what do we need to think about and do as a result?

Catholic Schools are a vital part of the life of a parish. There is a great love of the schools in our parishes which have them; they are part of the fabric and history and there is strong emotional and spiritual attachment.

Catholic Schools are also a barometer for the parish. In many cases, the vitality of a parish can be gauged by the vitality and health of the parish school. Is the parish growing? Are there families with children?

External factors. Our schools exist in the midst of other schools; public and charter. Some of these offer a quality academic education, some do not. Recently, there are signs that the federal government is going to exert more pressure on public schools to carry out social agendas which it sees as important.

Internal factors. The Church is changing demographically. Fewer people are getting married and having children—this is a national trend, and is reflected here in our diocese too. Of those who are getting married, they are having fewer children. Many of our parishes have seen a drop in the last decades in the number of infant baptisms which is one gauge on future student populations in a parish.

Among millennials, a recent Notre Dame study showed that within this group, roughly half will no longer identify with the religion of their youth by the age of 29. This is significant because this generation is the one that will form the families and children for the next decade.
Diocesan-specific losses. With many of the recent scandals and challenges, statistics show that our diocese has lost a significant number of households who no longer identify as members.

Immigrants. Immigrants bring a new vitality to parish communities. They are generally less secularized, have larger families, and possess a simple, beautiful faith; usually they do not possess the resources to afford some of the costs of a Catholic School education.

Costs. The cost of Catholic School education continues to be a factor. I will leave it at that, except to say that we will need to find ways to learn from one another and assist one another in finding the best ways to be good stewards of our resources, and identify new resources.
These are some of the things on the horizon and some present challenges; many of them are sobering and serious.

But, there are also what might be called opportunities. Here is what I see from my perspective.

We have something very good to offer.

We have to identify what makes us unique and do it with excellence. Catholic Schools exist to assist parents as the “first educators” in providing a Catholic education to their children. Parents’ most important priority is their children. They are willing to sacrifice mightily for what they see as priorities. We must be able to articulate why a Catholic School education is of utmost value to a child and then be able to provide that.

Achieving excellence. We must always be striving to be excellent. Schools can fall prey to the same foibles and temptations that individuals do. What are some of these? Pride and jealousy: we can lack the humility to say, “We could learn from what they are doing in that parish school or that high school.” Or, the attitude can settle in that “this is how we’ve always done it.” There is sometimes a reluctance to admit that what we are doing might not be working, or working as well as it could. We need to be able to humbly help one another and share assistance, ideas, and practices. We need to look at successes and be able to say, “Can you show me how you did that?” We can sometimes forget that as a Church we are not competing with one another and so we must strive to see that all our schools are successful. Complacency: we must avoid the trap of assuming that the status quo is good enough.

We also have to commit to the project of helping each student to identify excellence and develop the habits to pursue excellence for life. Every person has gifts. But every student’s realization of using those gifts at their full potential will be different. One student might achieve excellence by simply being in the top three quarters of the class academically; while another might realize this by falling in the top ten per cent. The gifts are different and so the measure of excellence will be different, much the way a golf handicap works. A Catholic School should strive to assist each student identify his or her gifts and then set out to develop the habits to use those gifts to their potential. That is the definition of excellence. This also eliminates the culture of competition, and helps students realize they are part of a community in which everyone is striving to be excellent for the glory of God, and helping one another in that mission. It’s a very Biblically based vision of a Catholic school community.

Each of our schools must know clearly what they are about and pursue that with single-mindedness. I have learned over time that human beings cannot focus on too many things with single-mindedness very well. Organizations often develop strategic plans that are so cumbersome, detailed and hard to remember that they end up getting ignored. Our schools must be able to identify what they are about and truly pursue that in a passionate way. This must be measurable and time-bound. There must be some accountability to say we did this or we did not.
There must be a vision and/or a mission statement that everyone knows and can share with someone who asks; it must be the touchstone that animates and unites the faculty, the students and the families of the school. It will inform and give meaning to every activity and decision. All of this must be pursued in an atmosphere of trust and integrity.

These are some of the things that are needed to create cultures of excellence. Excellence is attractive; parents will sacrifice for excellence. Catholic Schools will not survive if they are not excellent. If we are excellent, and are able to assist every child in achieving personal excellence in a culture of friendship and faith, we will attract students, even if that pool of students is diminishing in some parishes.

Another opportunity lies in the role that our Catholic Schools have in evangelizing and touching the entire family. Many of our families are not as active in their faith as they perhaps ought to be. Often times, our schools are the places where the parents and grandparents, the entire family, has contact with the Church. Through this, the Church has a key opportunity to meet and engage the other family members in an encounter with Jesus and the blessing of belonging to the community of believers. This is where the pastor can meet and befriend parishioners on the fringes.

In my former diocese, there was a small rural school which had dwindled down to 29 students when I arrived. In fact the entire Junior High grades (6-8) had only five or six students. They shared a teacher. It was in a town that had been hard hit by economic hardship and there were fewer families in the town, including fewer Catholic families. But this little Catholic School consistently turned out great students. The Valedictorian and Salutatorian for the local public high schools were consistently from this small Catholic school. The students were also known for their strong character. When I assigned a new pastor we spoke about telling the story of this Catholic School to the broader community. Over time, many other families began sending their children to the school so that by last year the enrollment had climbed to around ninety students.

The other outcome was that this little parish began having larger RCIA classes. I began to notice at the Rite of Election large numbers, whole families coming into the Church from this parish. Most of these were introduced to the Catholic Faith through the school. The children, and then their parents, were attracted to the beauty of what they found. It was an indirect way for many non-Catholic parents to be introduced to the parish priest and develop a friendship and a dialogue about the gift of faith. It is an example of how a Catholic School ought to serve as a locus for evangelization—for our Catholic families, but also for families who are not Catholic and may have no church affiliation at all.

We have to begin looking strategically at the larger role that our Catholic Schools play in the overall mission of the Church to “go and make disciples.” In the end, this is the mission of the Catholic School, I believe. Catholic education is an expression of the Church’s mission of salvation and an instrument of evangelization: to “make disciples” of Christ and to “teach them to observe all” that he has commanded. If this is not what we are about, why are we doing this?

A successful Catholic School will be an asset for a parish and not seen as a liability, as something gobbling up all the resources. But, this is only going to happen if it is making disciples, not simply of the students, but of the entire family.

I only can speak anecdotally, but I am alarmed at how many young people and families I don’t see at Mass. In my parish visits, I see mostly gray heads. We must also think of our schools in terms then of evangelizing the family. This is where we need to study the successes of others. We have to consider the collaboration between the pastor and the principal. The school might be the locus for offering other parish ministry and formation to the family.

Attentiveness to the mission and vision will shape the hiring of new faculty. Are they committed disciples and good teachers? Both must be prerequisites! Only committed disciples can help others to be committed disciples. The Catholic School is a ministry of the parish; not simply an educational ministry, but a ministry of evangelization and service.

Catholic Schools in America arose, in large part, to assist the newly arrived immigrant communities. There is a similar need today with the newly arrived immigrant communities, who are faith-filled, but often lack the material resources for a Catholic education. These families are also where a large portion of our young Church is found. We are foolish if we do not reach out to assist these families and their children today. In helping them now we are forming the leadership and membership of our future parishes. If we do not connect them to the Church community, those bonds will weaken and break in the swift currents of the secular culture. Our schools need students, and these are Catholic children and families that are in our midst. We also do not want our Catholic Schools to be places where only the wealthy can attend.

Sharing the good news and telling the story. We must realize that if we do not tell our story, no one will. The best way to do that is through the enthusiasm and word of mouth from the families and children in our schools. But, we must also be better at using other tools to tell our story, including having a good, user-friendly, informative website. Most parents when doing research on a school will look at the website. If the website looks poorly done, that tells them all they need to know. This too needs to be done with excellence. We need to do smart things, common sense things too. Have new parishioners visited and introduce them to the gift and blessing that is available through Catholic Education. Invite parents and families in for a tour with lunch. Prepare and invite students to speak to visitors about their experience.
Institutions live or die for reasons: some are external, most are internal; they lose their purpose and their passion.

I hope in these days we can think along those lines of purpose and passion. These are the things that are not only key to Catholic Schools, but all ministry in the Church: knowing why we exist, and then pursuing it with passion and single-mindedness.

I’ll end with a story I recently saw in which a woman was asked by a pastor to use her artistic abilities to paint a large mural for a Catholic high school gym. The woman artist was not Catholic, but she was a very talented artist. Like many Catholic Schools, this high school used the gym for all school Masses, and the setting was not very conducive to prayer. When students entered the gym they did not sense they were in a sacred place and so would not become still and prayerful, but would chat and joke like they typically did when in the gym.

The pastor thought something had to be done, so he asked the artist to make a large mural on a canvas that would be hung behind the altar and in front of the students when they would have Mass in the gym. The artist, wanting to execute the painting successfully began to study other sacred art and the Liturgy itself so that she could accomplish her commission.

After several months the painting was completed, a magnificent, beautiful depiction of the Heavenly Jerusalem. The effect on the students was immediate and striking. Confronted with the beauty in front of them, they immediately realized they were in a setting of prayer and worship and became still and reflective. The other outcome of the project was on the artist herself. In the process of her study, preparation and execution of the mural, she was drawn to faith and decided to enter the Church, which she did.

I share that story because it is a symbol of sorts of the dynamic that happens in a successful Catholic School. It is an enterprise that is grounded in our faith and love for God. But, in this process of learning and living together, all the members of the school community are transformed by the workings of grace: the students, the teachers, the parents, the pastor, and others. This is because the Catholic School is not simply what we do. Christ is the foundation of Catholic education. He is the genuine Teacher and the model for what it is to be truly human. Our Catholic Schools must be places of evangelization where people encounter Christ through daily interaction, studies, prayer, liturgies, and participation in the sacraments. Through these encounters students can come to realize their true identity as well as their mission as disciples. This can only happen in a community of faith which cultivates the intellectual, physical and spiritual gifts of each student, but also a life of virtue, and a Christian worldview which is a part of a great patrimony passed on to us from previous generations. It is a worldview that sees the human person as made in the image and likeness of God, called to do great things and good things; a worldview where there are objective truths to be known and embraced for a happy life. And, while aware of weaknesses and sinfulness, our schools must be places where God’s mercy and forgiveness is known and received to help students realize their purpose in this life and in the next.

These are a few of the things I see but, as I said, I don’t have all the answers, which is why we come together as a team today. I hope and pray that this will be a time of creative sharing guided by the Holy Spirit that we can chart a course for our Catholic schools to be an even more vital and effective part of the Church’s mission. Thank you.


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October 26, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph