Catholic Schools: What Is the Difference?
Sister Ellen Rose Coughlin, SSJ
Superintendent of Schools
Every year the last Sunday in January marks the beginning of Catholic Schools Week. This annual celebration began in 1974. The first national Catholic Schools Week theme was Difference Where It Counts – Message, Community, Service. Subsequent themes in the years that followed emphasized the same three components. This year’s theme is Catholic Schools Communities of Faith, Knowledge, Service.
Our Catholic schools offer quality academic programs but quality academic programs are available in public schools as well. Our school’s programs address the whole person but more and more public schools address the whole person, most notably their emphasis on character education, ethical behavior and social responsibility. Our Catholic schools are close knit communities where a safe, orderly, and secure environment support student leaning. Many of the public school districts in which our schools are located are relatively small. They offer the same benefits. Service through participation in activities and and projects which reach out to others is a hallmark of Catholic schools. Public schools do the same. So, how are Catholic schools different? What is the difference?
Perhaps you are familiar with a phrase we hear during the Christmas holidays, Jesus is the Reason for the Season. Well, Jesus is the reason for our Catholic schools too. It is His message that they proclaim. They are communities founded on faith in Jesus and His message. Service is an imperative because Jesus told us to reach out to others especially the most vulnerable among us and reminded us that our eternal destiny depends on seeing His face in others.
Our Catholic schools see education as a process which forms the whole person in terms of eternal life. The specific purpose of Catholic education is the formation of students who, animated by the Gospel, will be good citizens of this world and of the world to come. It is neither for this life only that God created us, nor for this life only that our students require an outstanding education. Our students have been created to enjoy one day the beauty and joy of eternal happiness. This is the supernatural vision offered in a Catholic school.
The eternal destiny of our students is accompanied by a profound respect for their dignity as human persons, made in the image and likeness of God and called to life in Christ. Catholic schools have their foundation in Christ. The words and deeds of Jesus are central to a school’s program and environment. Christ is not an afterthought or an add-on to the foundational principles of a Catholic school. His words and deeds are the living memory imparted to the students. He is the one who gives meaning to human life.
The human person does not develop in isolation from others. Every person has been created as a social being whose fulfillment is achieved in relationship with God and with others. Thus, community is an essential component in a person’s development. Catholic schools are communities of faith, extensions of the first and essential community of the family and the extended family of the parish. In the school community of faith, the student experiences relationships based on the Gospel and the teachings of the Church. These experiences foster good habits or virtues that instill, maintain and cultivate an environment in which the social nature of the human person can develop and flourish.
Every academic institution imparts values - ideals for which a student is prepared to pursue and eventually achieve. The ideal that provides the foundation for our Catholic schools is a person, Jesus Christ. From Him students discover a supernatural vision of life, the full dignity of the human person and the importance of community. Christ is the reason for our Catholic schools. He is the one who makes our Catholic schools unique. The difference in a Catholic school is not found in “what makes the difference” but rather in “who makes the difference.” Christ is the difference that defines who we are and why we exist. He is the one who leads our students to a bright future in this world and eventually in eternal life.
Let me take this opportunity to thank the parents who have chosen a Catholic school for their children. I realize that in many instances this choice brings with it a financial sacrifice. This sacrifice, however, is an investment in your child’s future that will result in benefits for your child, the Church and society.
Likewise, I want to thank the administrators and teachers in our Catholic schools. I am most appreciative for their commitment to our Catholic schools. The Second Vatican Council said it so well. “. . . let teachers recognize that the Catholic school depends upon them almost entirely for the accomplishment of its goals and programs” (Decree on Catholic Education, #8). Theirs is a supernatural calling and not simply the exercise of a profession. “The nobility of the task to which teachers are called demands that, in imitation of Christ, the only Teacher, they reveal the Christian message not only by word but also by every gesture of their behavior. (The Catholic School, #43) We are indeed blessed to have administrators and teachers who are willing to assume this noble task.