Among the greatest risks faced by Catholic schools are not just the usual suspects. Many principals and bureaucrats fear falling enrolments, scandals, lawsuits or perhaps the greatest terror of all, poor exam results and comparisons to other schools.
These very real concerns, however much they leave some principals staring at the ceiling at 2am, are not the thing they should fear.
Put simply the real thing to fear is this; forgetting why you exist as a Catholic school in the first place.
From that premise everything else flows. If you forget why you exist in an organisational and ecclesial sense then you eventually descend into a cycle of frenetic busyness and relatively fruitless activity. When you’re not sure what you should be doing, then anything will do. As long as parents see something happening.
It’s understandable. In an increasingly complex, technological and results focused world many Catholic schools feel the pressure. The worry is that falling academic performance, staffing issues, demographic change or some crisis or scandal will place the the school into a position from which it cannot recover or one where it may draw the attention of the local Catholic Education Office or Bishop.
So What Does Matter?
Let’s be clear. Catholic schools don’t exist primarily to churn out inputs for capitalism. That said, jobs and skills matter. If you look at encyclicals like Rerum Novarum and Laborem Exercens you discover that since the Industrial Revolution the hierarchy of the Church has recognised the importance of work in the life of all people and the need for a just wage. They also don’t exist to look good in ranking systems against other schools so middle and upper class parents can feel smug and sleep better at night in the belief they bought Johnny or Mary a fast-track path to the corporate merry-go-round.
If all Catholic schools were needed for was the granting of a certificate of studies or so that young people could be kept of the streets for a few years and then released into the work force then surely the state could do that equally effectively.
We all know it doesn’t. No offence to the excellent work of many educators working in the state system.
As we’ve been saying in the Going Deeper program for a long time what matters in a Catholic school is so damn simple that we’re missing it.
The Big Two:
Catholic schools exists primarily to do two things.
First, they exist to evangelise. They exist to be a place, a community of believers where young people can actually encounter Christ as a real and living person not as an abstract historical figure or wisdom teacher. Not as one choice among many in a post-modern spiritual buffet.
Second, they exist to form the full human person in the image of Christ, body, mind and spirit. This includes their intellect, creativity, physical abilities, conscience, and more. This formation in the image of Christ is why all subjects play a part in the what the Church documents call ‘the formation of mature personalities.”
This idea is captured in the Church documents here:
The various school subjects do not present only knowledge to be attained, but also values to be acquired and truths to be discovered. All of which demands an atmosphere characterized by the search for truth, in which competent, convinced and coherent educators, teachers of learning and of life, may be a reflection, albeit imperfect but still vivid, of the one Teacher. In this perspective, in the Christian educational project all subjects collaborate, each with its own specific content, to the formation of mature personalities.
(The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, Congregation for Catholic Education (1998) p17)
The problem is that many schools have, for complex reasons, tended to forget the Christ part and head down the path of niceness. This is the path where you reduce Christianity to a ‘system of living’ or a philosophy or a way to earn a ticket into heaven by being good. It’s about being nice. It’s about being good people.
Christianity is not a system for being good. It is always, always about an encounter with a person. Jesus Christ. That encounter changes the person, both instantly and in an on-going sense. It also has a communal aspect in terms of membership within the body of Christ, the body of believers, the Church.
The Ultimate Questions
So, ultimately the Catholic school is either christocentric or it is wasting its time. It either helps people encounter Christ or it fails. It does not matter if it is the best ranked school in the country. It does not matter if it churns out captains of industry or heads of state. It does not matter if it has the latest computers, best aquatic centre or finest social justice program. If it is not a place where young people and staff encounter the real Christ and are assisted in becoming disciples, then it fails!
…the definitive aim of (a Catholic school) is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ: only he can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Spirit.”
The result of this kind of deep, reflective leadership is that programs and systems within a Catholic school gradually get filtered through questions like, “Where is Christ in this?” and “Is this program, plan, system, event or initiative going to help, in some way, to draw people closer to Christ?”
When these questions become innate, when leadership within a school begins to think this way then transformative change begins, inspired by the Holy Spirit.
And, importantly, what also happens is that the school gradually becomes a truly joyful, evangelistic community. It becomes a place where people want to come to work. It becomes a place where students feel a sense of pride, safety and belonging. It becomes a place where parents feel welcome, valued and where they want to contribute.