“[St. Francis called] for a love that transcends the barriers of geography and distance, and declares blessed all those who love their brother ‘as much when he is far away from him as when he is with him.’”
The opening paragraph to Pope Francis’s new encyclical Fratelli tutti reminds Catholic schools of their extraordinary task, fostering an environment of genuine care towards and among our students. Our schools look very different than they have in past years. The call remains: to acknowledge, include, and love each person.
How do we promote true fraternal love among distanced students? How do we deepen our schools’ Christocentric actions? We will look into three aspects of a Christocentric environment—community, tradition, and witness—and some approaches to promoting them through distance learning.
Community is fundamental to a Christian, Catholic environment; look no further than the ACE logo. Through our relationships with each other, we nourish our relationship with Christ, for “where charity and love are, there God is."
Involve students in the creation of class community
Together with your students, try writing a list of hopes and expectations for the online community. Then have them consider kind actions they can take towards each other that will support the community. A student-created “class covenant” can promote an environment where a caring community can blossom.
Promote relationships among students
Catholic schools must not only teach academic subjects, but also encourage students to meet God through meaningful relationships. Try assigning students a Zoom chat with a friend as a homework assignment, like ACE Teaching Fellows graduate Francis Butler did at Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford, Connecticut, emphasizing that we can encounter Christ through friendship.
We sustain Catholic faith by global connection through historical tradition. Tradition helps us keep our bearings when separated—in fact, it helps prevent us from ever becoming separated.
Ask students to participate in critical roles in the Mass, whether streamed or in-person. Participation through lectoring, offering petitions, or providing music can reorient our understanding of the Mass as an act of love, not just a ritual discussed in religion class.
Engage with the global prayer of the Church
Discuss a traditional prayer and how we use the same prayers worldwide to promote a sense of unity. Communally enter stories of the Bible through Ignatian Contemplation: Teaching Fellows graduate Kelden Formosa’s fifth-grade class presented an online Passion play reading to pray with their school community at Immaculate Conception School in Vancouver.
Personal witness and testimony strengthens bonds and makes the Gospel an active endeavor. Through witness we teach as Christ does, through story and experience.
Recognize God’s presence in your work
In The Divine Milieu, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., wrote about “sanctification through fulfilling the duties of our station.” We do not cease praying when we work for good, we pray through our work. Try making this philosophy a cornerstone of your school, and have students share examples of faith, hope, and love they see in their daily work.
Promote acts of service
“Preach the Gospel always; if necessary, use words.” Encourage small acts of kindness. Ask students to consider kindnesses they can do for those they live with (complimenting their sibling, helping parents before being asked) and those in your online community (going out of their way to be nice to someone they don’t usually talk to).
Pope Francis made a special call for solidarity among “Teachers, who have the challenging task of training children and youth in schools or other settings, [and who] should be conscious that their responsibility also extends to the moral, spiritual and social aspects of life.’” You are not alone in your efforts to promote a distanced Christian environment. Work together with fellow teachers and administration in your school. Many have found that the online format allows them to speak more frequently with teachers they rarely see in-person. Remember that you are a member of your school communion, with all the blessings and responsibilities that come with being a part of the body.