The face of the world is reflected in our Catholic schools, which embody students from many cultures. Register file photo

The gift of Catholic education

By  John B. Kostoff
  • April 28, 2021

The story is told that Albert Einstein met with his graduate students in Physics at Princeton University to provide them with their final examination. After distributing the exam, he walked out. His teaching assistant walked out with him.

For a long time, there was silence and then his assistant said, “Excuse me Professor Einstein, but wasn’t that the same examination you gave last year? Even the same questions?” Einstein stopped, looked at his graduate assistant and said, “Yes, it is, but the answers have changed.”

Apocryphal or not, it rings true. As we prepare to celebrate Catholic Education Week, we are reminded that the answers have changed, since both the inception of Catholic schools and more recently as we entered the pandemic. Our Church celebrates Catholic Education Week because it is a recognition that the fulfilment of the Church’s mission relies heavily on the success of Catholic schools and their living out of their mission. Both are intertwined in a joint ministry.

Ask any bishop who does not have publicly-funded Catholic schools if he would desire the situation in Ontario of Catholic schools, and I think you would get a resounding, “Yes.” In those dioceses without Catholic schools, we see dependences on a handful of private Catholic schools that require a significant tuition, that educate only the very few and rarely those with diverse learning styles.

If academic success is one of the lenses that shows we value education, then Catholic schools are doing very well. The demand for Catholic schools in so many of our communities speaks to a very strong academic success, but that isn’t the only way to evaluate Catholic schools. Catholic schools educate the entire person — they are by nature not only called to be successful but also faithful to the message of Jesus.

Often, we moan about our students not being Catholic enough. It reminds me of what one philosopher said: “The children now love luxury, they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect to elders and love chatter in place of exercise. They are now tyrants not servants… they contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table and tyrannize their teachers.” These words were issued by Socrates almost 600 years before the birth of Christ.

You see, I think we sometimes expect too much from our young people and at other times, not enough. Survey after survey says that if you want to increase the Catholic content and practice of our students, then you should be addressing their parents. Most children reflect their parents’ level of participation, understanding and the lived-out experience of faith.

We should not expect more from our students than we do from their parents. It is parents who are in need of evangelization, so that their fire can be passed on to all. This is not to say families aren’t trying, especially during this pandemic, but they need help.

How can you ask a family to be like the Blessed Family or be the Domestic Church you are called to be if you don’t support them in their development? It is not enough for Catholic schools to proclaim the triad of family, church and school if it ends just with the proclamation. How do we make this triad work? How do we remind each family that they are a “little church”? Catholic education has always recognized the importance of parents as the first teachers, but the Church has also recognized that this teaching is not just done by parents, but is a true community effort.

This year we celebrate a Catholic education system that has evolved, providing new answers because some of the old answers have changed. Our schools embody students from many cultures, families in many shapes and sizes, and levels of faith commitments that vary. We embrace students from families struggling with the economics of the time, who are food insecure, unsure about their financial livelihood, struggling to support aging parents and the constant demands of consumerism.

Some of our students come from families where unfortunately violence is a too common sight. To this, add the voice of the culture telling them they aren’t good enough, they don’t look or dress the right way, they don’t look like the rest of us, that their education is substandard, that there will be no jobs for them in the future, that we are on the brink of climate and economic destruction.

Mix in the destructiveness and anonymity of social media to create drive-by smearing of reputations, the acceptance of innuendo as fact and the constant fear of being judged by anyone with a cellphone camera, and you have the life of many of our students. Add to this the anxiety of students and members of their families, the mental health challenges, and you have the make-up of an average Catholic school community.

Catholic educators walk into this mix each day, seeking, as Pope Francis says, “fraternal love capable of seeing the sacred grandeur of our neighbour, of finding God in every human being.” Not always an easy task, but a task nonetheless that Catholic schools seek to exist in each day. Catholic schools are called to bring hope to a world that often despises this theological virtue.

On March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, Pope Francis announced a “Special Year of the Family” which also coincides with the fifth anniversary of his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). This initiative runs for over a year, ending in the celebration on June 26, 2022, during the 10th World Meeting of Families. The goal set for the Church is to organize events in our dioceses, parishes and schools that will support families.

In the midst of so many challenges that the pandemic has brought, with pivoting from in-person to online learning, Pope Francis has reminded us of the strength of the family and how our families in many cases are helping us to endure the pandemic. His call has a special meaning for schools. We speak of the parish, home and school link, and Pope Francis has asked us to help move this from words to actions.

Schools should be encouraged to find ways over this year of the family to support, encourage and sustain families focusing on Amoris Laetitia. It is a natural link for parishes and schools and families to work together.

Clement of Alexandria said “Christ the educator” taught body, mind and spirit, so all education is a “work of salvation” — to “save souls.” Catholic Education Week celebrates not only the historical evolution of Catholic education, but it has always sought to educate the body, mind and spirit. It has always sought to reach out to the community, never to be insular.

So, we celebrate Catholic education for its undiscovered potential and its education of the whole person, its building of community between home, school and parish and its continued work on behalf of the Church, of calling students to entering into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.

Can we do better? What institution can’t, what person can’t? But in the end, we realize there are different answers now to the questions that are being asked about Catholic schools and we should celebrate our voice and our place.

(Kostoff is executive director for the Ontario Catholic Supervisory Officers’ Association and co-author of One Home At a Time: Realizing and Living out Our Domestic Church.)

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