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What Makes Catholic Schools Worth Celebrating?

on Tuesday, 28 January 2020.

By: Bill Watson (ACE 4 Mobile) - Superintendent, Diocese of Camden
National Faculty, Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program

What is it, exactly, that sets Catholic schools apart and accounts for their excellence?

This is always an important question for leaders to consider in articulating and living the root beliefs and core values of their school communities. It seems especially relevant during Catholic Schools Week in the United States when students, parents, teachers, and principals across the country celebrate their schools with special activities, events, and recognitions. 

What Makes Catholic Schools Worth Celebrating?

The knee-jerk answers to this question are ultimately unsatisfying. “God is present in Catholic schools!”

True, but if we believe that God is in all things, then God is surely present in other kinds of schools as well.

“We model and teach Catholic values” names our religious identity, but scratching the surface, there are many values we would call our own that character programs in other kinds of schools can address.

"What sets Catholic schools apart? In ACE shorthand: The “heaven” part of College and Heaven."

So without further description, this answer seems incomplete. “We evangelize and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ” articulates our ultimate mission, but even that core can be so encompassing that it becomes an unexamined truism.

In Catholic on the Inside: Putting Values Back at the Center of Education Reform, Kathleen Porter Magee digs deeper into the question and thoughtfully considers three distinguishing elements of Catholic education that, although she does not explicitly do so, could be presented as two root beliefs and a core value. The beliefs are that truth is objective and that each student is made in God’s image.

What Makes Catholic Schools Worth Celebrating?

The implications of these beliefs are that Catholic schools offer a vision and process of education that helps students to study God’s world so that they come to discover truth and become who they are meant to be by God, in God’s image.

The core value, develop – specifically, developing the habits of virtue – follows, with the goal of forming students who use their free will to choose to do good.

What sets Catholic schools apart, then is the end of the education they provide: Not only admission to the next level of education, a productive job, or a happy life, but also coming to know, love, and serve God in this world so that we may be happy with Him in the next. In ACE shorthand: The “heaven” part of College and Heaven.

"The intentional, shared invitation of God’s grace authenticates a Catholic school as a Christian community and sets it apart from any other school."

This brief summary does not do it justice, but Kathleen does an inspiring job in Catholic on the Inside of reflecting and echoing Church teaching, such as that summarized in The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools, in the dynamic context of 21st century education reform. An underlying thread of that teaching that helps to demarcate the unique space that Catholic schools occupy today is that Catholic schools are communities, not institutions. Christian life is meant to be lived in community.

Indeed, community is one of the pillars of ACE, part of the foundation upon which root beliefs and core values are built. It follows that Catholic schools’ identities as Christian communities are an important component of what shapes their root beliefs and core values and therefore what makes them unique and successful.

Still, the “real world” of education is messy, and the root beliefs and core values of a community can quickly become aspirational. Its members can become tired and frustrated and can feel overwhelmed and disconnected from each other and their root beliefs.

When the messiness of life in a Catholic school brings these challenges, adhering to root beliefs and core values takes more than willpower. It takes God’s grace. More than that, it takes the intentional invitation and recognition of God’s grace by the school community, as a community. The intentional, shared invitation of God’s grace authenticates a Catholic school as a Christian community and sets it apart from any other school.

When a Catholic school invites the grace of God into every aspect of its life together as a community, it is able to truly set itself apart by living its root beliefs and core values, not just aspiring to them.

What Makes Catholic Schools Worth Celebrating?

This Catholic Schools Week, as you consider what sets your Catholic school apart, I encourage you to reflect on the ways that God’s grace has transformed your root beliefs or your mission from an aspiration to a reality.

The transformations you notice can be rapid, immediate turnarounds or, perhaps more commonly, subtle, gradual changes that illuminate themselves slowly as your school community relies more and more on the gift of God’s grace. Each gentle transformation is a miracle that sets your school apart and is worth celebrating - during Catholic Schools Week and always.

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