Beginning a New School Year
Sister Ellen Rose Coughlin, SSJ
Superintendent of Schools
Recently I attended the altar server gathering at our Cathedral. A number of times during the gathering the altar servers were reminded they are called to holiness and God has a plan for each of them. This led me to think about our diocesan priority to create a culture of vocations. The foundation for creating a culture of vocations is of course our baptism and the universal call to holiness that flows from it. Yes, all of us are called to holiness, to follow Jesus as faithful disciples who practice the great commandment of loving God and others.
What does holiness and living as faithful disciples of Jesus have to do with the beginning of the school year? The short answer is “everything.” They have a whole lot to do with the purpose of Catholic schools.
Catholic schools offer quality academic programs, but quality academic programs are available in public schools as well. Catholic school programs address the whole person, but it is not unusual for public schools to address the components of the whole person, the most notable addition being their acknowledged commitment to character education and ethical behavior. Catholic schools are often close-knit “communities” where a safe, secure and orderly environment support student learning. Many of the public school districts in our area are relatively small and offer the same benefits. All of this prompts the question, what is the difference . . . the something more that students receive in a Catholic school?
The something more is not a strong academic program, extracurricular opportunities, small classes, high test scores and graduation rates – as good as all these are – but a person. Catholic schools offer something unique to the education process because they are rooted in someone. In the words of Benedict XVI, a Catholic school “is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth (Address Catholic Educators of the United States, 2008). Pope Francis recognizes Catholic schools as places “where young minds and hearts are shaped in the love for the Lord and his Church, in the good, the true and the beautiful, and where children learn to be good Christians and upright citizens (Address to Bishops of South Korea, August 14, 2014).
Holiness, becoming a disciple, forming good habits or virtues modeled on Christ’s life, living as good citizens of this world who are on the way to becoming citizens of heaven – all this may sound lofty and perhaps out of sync with society’s expectations. Yet, the mission of a Catholic school, the purpose for which it exists is to form disciples – to teach students to know, love, and serve Jesus in this life and one day in eternity. Disciples “go forth” and spread the Gospel, the joy of knowing and being known by Jesus.
A Catholic school cannot ignore its Catholic purpose and become obsessed with educational excellence. On the other hand, it cannot ignore the education aspect and focus only on the spiritual aspect. A Catholic school facilitates a powerful encounter with Jesus Christ in order to help them “develop and deepen their relationship with God. It nurtures an academic culture of excellence with a primary concern for the pursuit of truth . . . and it harnesses every situation as an opportunity to promote growth in virtue” (Teach, Lead, Serve: The Ministry of Teaching, Matthew Kelly).
The history of Catholic education in our country is a story of generosity and sacrifice. This generosity and sacrifice continue in our diocese through devoted pastors and parishioners who support our schools, parents who assume tuition costs as opposed to free education in public schools and our dedicated administrators and teachers whose commitment is accompanied by a personal financial sacrifice.
May we greet the new school year with enthusiasm and joy because Christ is in our midst. He is “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6) who accompanies us on our journey of life and faith.