The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life, and that is evident in the Catholic school system. CNS photo

Eucharist at the heart of Catholic education

By  Richard Olson, Catholic Register Special
  • May 3, 2015

GUELPH, ONT. - In increasingly secular Ontario, the debate about the real or perceived distinctiveness of Catholic education rages on.

A column last year in the Toronto Star argued that our Catholic school districts are historical anomalies that enjoy an unjust funding model, are fiscally inefficient and out of tune with dominant cultural values.

But according to a report from the University of Notre Dame, Catholic schools around the globe enjoy a pride of place as learning communities that consistently help kids achieve academic and personal excellence. The reasons for this international trend should be fully explored and discussed. However, I would like to suggest one reason for the universal distinctiveness of Catholic education.

Since Vatican II and in publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Eucharist has been referred to as the source and summit of Christian life. Eucharist is the heartbeat of a sacramental Church. It draws the community together and then sends it out again.

The rhythm of this drawing together and sending forth has been described by theologian and storyteller John Shea as a movement in four parts: gather the folks, tell the story, break the bread and change the world.

Catholic schools follow Shea’s pattern of the Eucharist. Every day in our schools, children gather. As they gather, they share with each other the stories of their young lives. Part of the pattern of their day is the breaking of bread, whether in cafeterias or classrooms. With the final bell, children are sent back to their families, and each day a little more whole, a little wiser, even a little bit older than when they arrived. By these small increments of growth, thus is the world changed.

Of course one could argue that all schools, whether Catholic or otherwise, follow this pattern of gathering, of telling stories, of sharing meals and then of returning to families at the end of the day. The real difference lies in the intentionality and the specificity with which Catholic schools embrace these four movements. For the Christian, creation itself is transformed with the Incarnation. The agency of God in bringing Jesus, God made flesh, into the centre of ordinary human life is essential. Similarly, Jesus must be at the centre of Catholic school life in a manner that is purposeful and specific.

As we gather in our schools we are guided by a ministry of welcome that finds its source in the hospitality of Jesus’ words and deeds. “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28-30). All occasions of gathering, whether in the morning or for assemblies or for parent nights, must be animated by the warm embrace of hospitality.  

Watch primary students hug their teachers as they arrive at morning bell. Watch the excited buzz of teenagers greeting each other at lockers and in hallways when they return from summer break. Watch assigned student leaders greet visitors to the school with smiles and firm handshakes. And witness the open-armed welcome and sense of joy that is a pre-condition for meaningful liturgy in our schools.  

Catholic schools are distinct in the manner in which we gather. We are purposefully guided by the biblical imperative to greet every stranger with welcome and hospitality. One of the high schools in our district has an inscribed motto above the main entrance: “There are no strangers here, only friends we have not met.” Every visitor walks under it before they enter the main foyer and encounter a large mural of a smiling Jesus.

Tell the Story
Additionally, in our Catholic schools the stories we tell are not randomly selected. They are guided by the weekly lectionary and so informed by God’s saving action in history. In this story we share, God’s agency is revealed in the person of Jesus who reminds us that we are loved more than we could ever hope for or even imagine. In simplest terms, this is the very heart of the good news that is the Gospel.  

It is the Gospel that frames how we share stories with each other. The leaders in our schools and the teachers who receive the stories of children do so with an awareness of the larger biblical narrative that the Christian community immerses itself in — not just every Sunday — but every day. Faith leaders like principals in Catholic schools help tell the story of the school through the lens of the biblical narrative. Catholic teachers help children make connections between the big story of the Christian community and their own lives.

I remember an opening school Mass that was celebrated just a few days after 9/11. The processional cross featured a life-sized paper mache Jesus who was covered with the clipped headlines and images from the newspapers of the previous days. On this day in 2001, just a few days after the horrors of 9/11, the Church was celebrating the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. On that morning a community of grieving students and staff were able to join their personal experiences of shock with the tragedy of their American cousins, and all within the mystery of Jesus’ suffering and glorification.           
Catholic schools convey a eucharistic sensibility that joins the larger Christian narrative of salvation history to the personal and communal narratives of their students.

Breaking Bread
Similarly, we bring a eucharistic sensibility to how we break bread in our school cafeterias, classrooms and staff rooms. All human beings are social consumers who need food and long for communion with others and with divine mystery. In the Christian narrative, Jesus gives Himself to His friends and to the world as bread and wine. There is a mysterious intimacy in a shared meal, especially when it is framed, as it is in our Catholic schools, with a prayer like Grace Before Meals: bless us Lord; bless the gift of food we share; we acknowledge that it comes from your abundant goodness through Jesus the Christ.

In our Catholic context sharing a prayer precedes sharing a meal. We recognize God’s presence in all that we receive, especially in our daily bread. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus were not able to recognize Jesus until He broke bread with them. In faith, we confess that Jesus is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament and — by extension of that same faith — that every meal we are given is not earned as merit but received as gift.  

There is tremendous power in teaching this to children. The need to eat every day unites the human family. The awareness that each meal is a gift to be celebrated deepens the communion between persons, elevates respect for the stewardship of the Earth and its resources, and accentuates the goodness of God. The fact that a shared meal is at the centre of our sacramental faith focuses our actions and leads us to knowledge of how healing works.

Good teachers and school leaders know how important it is to share meals together. Classes of students become communities when they are able to eat together. Staff tensions decrease or just become easier to bear when occasions are found to share food. Potlucks, Christmas luncheons, even boxes of pizza shared before a parent/teacher interview evening draw people together.

Our Catholic schools, as extensions of the evangelizing mission of the Church, approach all opportunities to break bread as moments of grace. Christians do not eat with each other without Jesus present. This is ultimately expressed in the celebration of the Eucharist, but that same sensibility of thanksgiving animates all shared meals between peers, friends, colleagues — even strangers.

Jesus taught us that a table is also an altar of sacrifice where we acknowledge our willingness to give ourselves over to the service of others. At Mass, before the eucharistic prayer, the priest invites us to pray with him that his sacrifice and ours may be acceptable to God. In sharing meals with children, in offering grace, we help them understand that a loving response to the goodness of God is welcome and appropriate.  

Every meal is an opportunity to express gratitude, pledge service and enter more deeply into communion with Jesus and our friends. The way we break bread together in Catholic schools makes us distinctive.

Change the World
Finally, at the conclusion of each school day, we send children home to their families with the conviction that if they have been nourished in the context of loving relational learning, then the world will be a better place, a more peaceful one, one that responds with love to the gift of growth — mind, body, spirit — that education offers. We are not naïve in this. We are made hopeful by the gift of faith.

At the conclusion of Mass we are sent forth with the injunction to animate the Gospel with our lives. The experience of gathering, sharing stories and a meal with Jesus at the centre strengthens us and missions us for service.

Think of the Ontario Catholic School Graduate Expectations (OCSGE) that we publish, profess and hold up as the goal of our faith-based educational system. When I taught Grade 12 religious education classes, I would tell the students that they had been consecrated (literally, set apart) by virtue of their experience in Catholic schools to go out and serve the world. Their real culminating activity was to strive to love God and neighbour, to serve and to heal, as a concrete witness to the faith that they had received and confessed.

If you have not recently reviewed the OCSGEs, they are well worth review. The 2011 revised expectations can be found on the Institute for Catholic Education web site. They remain a clarion call for all who learn, work or serve in Catholic schools.

In the Diocese of Hamilton, the Catholic educational community has come together to support, strengthen and deepen the experience of Catholic education from baptism in the life of a parish family through the school years to post-secondary.

The Partners in Catholic Education are made up of members from the Diocese of Hamilton, the seven Catholic school districts (including the French Catholic) and St. Jerome’s University. A celebration of the Eucharist is held in September, hosted by a different partner each year in a different parish church.  

Again, it is the Eucharist that informs the work of the partners in sending them forth to serve the Catholic educational community with workshops, talks and formation programs. Most recently, the partners (with leadership from Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic District School Board) have been training teachers to use Christian meditation to pray with children. In a societal context where the Supreme Court issues injunctions to ban prayer at council meetings, Catholic teachers are leading children more deeply into a life of prayer. This is transformative work.

In summary, Catholic schools are animated by a eucharistic sensibility that welcomes all as we gather; that connects the agency of God to the story of each child; that nourishes both with bread and with the promise of the intimacy for which each of us longs; that gratitude for being embraced and welcomed and taught and challenged leads to a generative love that wants to return the kindness, that desires to serve others.

The gift of Catholic education behooves us to explore, in depth and with detail, how the pattern of the Eucharist animates our schools and makes them distinct.

(Olson is the principal of Bishop Macdonell Catholic High School in Guelph, Ont.)

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