Catholic schools have a contribution to make to the Church and society, and must be welcoming to all. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Catholic education plants seeds of faith

By  John B. Kostoff
  • April 28, 2022

In Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Christus Vivit of March 2019, the Pope boldly states that Catholic schools must “seek to welcome all young people regardless of their religious choices, cultural origin and personal, family or social situation. In this way the Church makes a fundamental contribution to the individual education of the young in various parts of the world.” 

Pope Francis fundamentally reminds those in Catholic education that we have a contribution to make knowingly to our Church but also to society. But first he reminds us that our schools must be places of hospitality and welcome students who often come with a variety of challenges. One can only imagine the challenges that schools will face as they welcome families who have fled Ukraine over the last few months and the supports that will be required to assist the students and their families as they settle into Canada over the next year.

If we couple this notion of hospitality and welcoming people into our school system, we remember a model that Pope Francis spoke about early in his pontificate about Church and how this equally applies to schools as “being a field hospital.”

I think the concept of Catholic schools is clearly continuing to evolve over time. Catholic schools no longer just receive people with a specific faith commitment and understanding. Rather Catholic schools today have students with a variety of faith commitments, in the same way as it welcomes students who have a variety of academic skills and abilities. We don’t turn away students because they don’t read at grade level, or students who can’t write at an expected grade level. We welcome them all and work with them to achieve greater understanding.   

Some students who come into our schools are well grounded in the understanding of our faith, others less so and some have very little understanding. Many are in need of evangelization. There was a time when we thought that students came into Catholic schools all with the same understanding and the same faith journey but that assumption has never held up to any serious analysis. People have entered our schools in the past and continue to now struggling to understand their faith and to live it out in today’s challenging times.

In the seminal work of Thomas Groom, What Makes Education Catholic, Groom identifies Catholic education as a form of faith posture or stance grounding the student in the traditions of our Catholic faith so that they can then reach out into the world.

This notion of a faith posture reminds us that growing in faith is a process: it begins with the family, is supported and nurtured in our schools and parishes and it’s lived out in the wider community. This process continues until death. 

There will always be those who criticize Catholic education and who claim that our schools are not Catholic enough or that they are too Catholic, but we have learned over the years that presentation of the faith content to students does not equal learning nor does it necessarily lead to an integrated faith life for our students. Nor does it lead to a lasting faith commitment. We have a  much healthier understanding now that those who commit to Catholic schools often come in as seekers. At the same time we have students into our schools with a strongly grounded faith commitment.

Catholic education must address these two extremes each and every day.  This concept of presenting the faith and recognizing that people are on various roads can be seen in the Parable of the Sower. In that parable we are reminded that the Sower distributes seeds, some last for a short time, some last until they are tested and some take root and produce 100-fold. There is not the same expectation in the parable that all seeds will take but rather the onus is on the Sower to make sure that the seeds are sown in the field.

This is very much the image of how Catholic education works with each and every day of distributing seeds of faith all the while recognizing that some will take, some wither away, some will take and then will be tested and not take because their understanding is not deep enough, while  others will produce 100-fold. This cannot be  presented in some rote fashion but rather as an engagement of the whole person. The irony is that this understanding has always been the understanding of Catholic education.   

If we truly believe that faith is a gift then we must understand that the role of Catholic schools is to prepare the individual to accept the gift presented. We can’t force the gift on someone, we can’t demand that they open it, we can’t demand that they be appreciative, we can’t demand that they understand how important it is or the value of the gift. Catholic schools today seek to ensure that the seeds of faith are presented in multiple ways.

In our religion program, our family life program or approved textbooks that reflect the Catholic awareness and faith perspective, it can be found in a chaplaincy program, and our sacramental preparation, in the celebration of the liturgical year, in the infusing of Catholic values in the day-to-day curriculum of our students. In our social justice outreach programs or sacramental preparation retreats and other faith experiences. Catholic schools should live out this faith in their daily interactions between teachers and students, teachers and teachers, teachers and parents, administration, trustees, students and students and students and their parents. Catholic education is most faithful when it also works closely with the local parish to ensure that the spiritual needs of students are supported in a variety of ways.

It is not surprising then that Catholic education and Catholic schools can be found throughout the world and are valued in many countries for  providing a very textured, infused Catholic education in the day-to-day life of students. It is also worth noting that in many countries that are run by totalitarian governments the first thing they often do is close down Catholic schools because they recognize in the very nature of Catholic schools, in the very nature of the proclamation of Catholic schools, there is something fundamentally radical that students should not be exposed to because it is unsettling to the status quo. This fundamental radical way of viewing the world can be seen as one of the ways in which Catholic schools are often different from other forms of education, and our schools are and must remain a different expression of education.

In Ontario today over 575,000 English-language students attend Catholic schools in 29 English Catholic school boards in over 1,500 schools. Our schools face many of the same issues that our public schools face, the same societal pressures, the same anxieties and fears. What is different is how we approach and deal with those issues. And let’s be honest, there are times when the difference may not be as distinctive as it should be. But we know we cannot just proclaim to be different, we must demonstrate that in concrete ways each and every day remembering the words of Pope Francis. 

The future of Catholic education is lived out daily in our schools, in the support for our schools from parents, guardians, priests, teachers, administrators, in our board rooms, by trustees and students. For those who lead our Catholic education system, we would do well to remember the words found in James 3:1: “We who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” It is imperative that as we enter the celebration of Catholic Education Week, we continue to call our schools to be bold, to be faithful, to be innovative and to be places of hospitality and welcome where the seeds of faith are sown in meaningful ways. Where students are invited to enter into a relationship with Jesus and lived out in our churches. That our schools be places of hope, assurance and challenge and academic achievement and integration of all students and that we as a Catholic community realize our schools are a gift to this province and to the Catholic community and for all who attend our schools.

Finally, we  are reminded in a recent presentation by Redemptorist Fr. Paul Hansen that we must live out the command of Micha that challenges us in our schools and in our board offices “to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your Lord.” If we can do that then Catholic education will continue to celebrate its uniqueness in the years to come.

(Kostoff, is an educator, author, frequent contributor to The Catholic Register and serves as executive director of the Ontario Catholic Supervisory Officers’ Association.)

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