Catholic course guidelines help shape what is taught, be it science, math or history, from a Catholic perspective. OSV News photo

Catholic education is defined by the Gospel of Christ

By  John Kostoff, Catholic Register Special
  • May 2, 2024

Catholic Education Week is an opportunity for the entire Catholic community to celebrate one of the finest educations that can be provided. It is also a gift to the province in so many ways. 

We have long passed the historical and legal justifications for Catholic schools, which still are relevant. Catholic schools today continue to provide an academically rigorous education that is deeply embedded in a Gospel value program for students to learn and live out in their daily lives. Catholic schools also have an opportunity to welcome all who enter their school doors who value this approach to educational formation. Catholic schools are no mere institutions but rather are challenged to be transformative and move from the concept of institution to community mindset. In the documents of Vatican II, Gravissimum Educationis, the Council Fathers proclaim, “an important advance in the way a Catholic school is thought of: the transition from the school as an institution to the school as a community where the community dimension is a primary theological concept rather than a sociological category.”

“Catholic schools are communities of faith that have at their foundation an educational initiative characterized by an evangelical value. The initiative entails the involvement of the whole school community, parents as well, always placing the student at the centre who grow together while respecting everyone. Let teachers recognize that the Catholic school depends upon them almost entirely for the accomplishment of its goals and programs.”

Catholic education is one of the oldest systems of education in the world and still extremely valued in most countries. It is an education for the wealthy in some areas, in others an education for those who are economically challenged or disenfranchised by society. It is particularly valued in many non-Christian countries for the educational experience it provides. And you can be assured these schools are not watered-down Christian teaching to feel accepted; cooperation, yes, but capitulation, no. The entire enterprise of Catholic education is about ensuring that our schools have the cultural architecture that reflects what we as a Catholic community profess. That our schools are centres of academic excellence, that as the Council Fathers said, are student-centred on the individual and recognize and respect the pace of all in their growth. 

What this means for Catholic schools is that creating a Catholic community is not a matter of policies, procedures or edicts, but rather the results of all coming together, to create communities of faith and achievement that address the entire student and that recognize always that students’ approach and understanding of faith is often at the students’ own pace. Gone are the days we equate presentation of information as knowledge or understanding. Today our schools are very much like our parishes, with people at various places on their faith journeys, but they have begun that journey with the first step, whether that be coming into a parish church or registering for a Catholic school. 

To be sure, we have some “Zacchaeus,” people who come to Catholic schools but maybe keep their distance when they are seeing and hearing the Gospel in our schools. But what is important is they are there hearing the message, watching it lived out, hopefully without any hypocrisy. In a document from the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, the heart of the matter is stated: “it is precisely in the Gospel of Christ, taking root in the minds in the lives of the faithful, that the Catholic school finds its definition.”

If we look at any academic measurement of achievements you will see Catholic schools doing very well, and in some cases exceedingly well, whether that be provincial or international testing platforms. Looking for innovative programming, look no further than your local Catholic schools. But this is not only the hallmark of a Catholic school. Our schools today have a religious education catechetical program from Kindergarten to Grade 9, and expanding. A program that has been the creation of professional educators and approved by Ontario’s bishops. The catechetical program reflects the invitation to our students to come to understand the invitation of Jesus to come and follow. The program is both educational, respecting the developmental cognitive stages of children, and religious in that it scaffolds the teachings of our faith in appropriate ways, using lessons, examples and stories as well as Scripture and prayer to reinforce the teaching expectations, something that has not always been the hallmark of our Religion programs. 

Formal religious education is taught four days a week, with the revised Family Life Program, approved by Ontario’s bishops, being taught once a week. These programs are pivotal to creating a Catholic environment in our schools. Add to this sacramental support for our students in their sacramental years, the celebration of the richness of the Liturgical Year, chaplains in many of our secondary and in some elementary schools, visitations by the local pastor, the celebrating of Eucharist in our schools, non-Eucharistic liturgies, religion consultants, the importance of prayer in the daily life of the school, the role of the  Catholic Graduate Expectations, Catholic course guidelines that help shape what is taught from a Catholic perspective and you have a very detailed and thoughtful approach to working with our children to nurture and bring them into a greater relationship with Jesus, one that we assume has started in the home.

Add to this teachers who are prepared at the Faculty of Education to teach in a Catholic school, and subsequently when hired have to complete a religious education credit approved by the bishops, the requirements for a pastoral letter or form to acknowledge the would-be teacher is active in their parish prior to being hired, administrators and principals who have taken their additional qualification courses through a Catholic-approved program, and delivery agencies that ensure the uniqueness of Catholic schools, exposure to Catholic documents on education and our unique Catholic pedagogy and you have a strong level of support for those who are working with our students. 

All this is further encompassed in three excellent documents on Catholic education in Ontario, the most recent being “Renewing the Promise” providing guidance and support for those working in the ministry of Catholic education. This document along with the bishop’s two earlier doucments, This Moment of Promise and later Fulfilling the Promise, along with other Church documents, provide a pathway for Catholic schools to live out their unique mission.

But Catholic education does not just reside in the religion or family life curriculum, but rather should be seen in all programming that takes place in our schools. Literature, social studies, sciences, arts, physical education and technology should all embrace a Catholic world view so that students, regardless of their program of studies, are exposed to a Catholic perspective because our schools are not neutral. An example would be secondary school economics or science curriculum. It would be hard not to see the opportunities for Church teaching and most recently some of the papal statements on the environment, dignity of work, immigration and the role of social justice and dignity of all life not to be woven into the program of instruction in each classroom offering. So that students come to see throughout the school day, the importance of Catholic teaching throughout the student’s program offering. 

Oh, to be sure, Catholic education faces its challenges, as it always has. It struggles constantly with the concept of “render under Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” In a fully funded system this challenge is a daily struggle. The challenge that schools find themselves in today is one of greater complexity, with political, social, economic and legal events influencing the school daily. The family dynamics have also become more complex and impacted by economic pressures, societal and intergenerational issues. As well, the challenges from the sheer weight of expectations for schools from so many is why many people no longer wish to teach. For most parents, the concept of Catholic education is a very broad notion, but it is lived out more readily in the local Catholic school. In the daily communication, interactions and faith experiences that occupy the life of a student, teacher, parent and pastor. In short, it is the relationship between school and school community that is so fundamental to Catholic education. 

The success of Catholic education depends so much on the local experience of the school and that requires a constant diligent effort of parent, teacher, student and pastor all working together, while recognizing the uniqueness of each school and their situation. Our parishes and schools also need to recognize that they need to assist families in developing and deepening their understanding of the domestic Church, the Church in their home. So, our children will celebrate and be supported in what they are learning in their school and parish with regards to the spiritual life of the children.

But let us not be Pollyanna, we need to also acknowledge like any institution that is seeking to become a community that we fail at times. That our language and actions betray what we profess and believe. That despite our best efforts, we fail to provide the fullness of what Catholic education should be. That there are times when there could be a gap between what we profess and what we live out. That being said, we must constantly be in the process of deep listening and renewal, grounded in our spirituality as Catholics.  We would be wise to recall the words of St. Paul in his Letter to Ephesians (4:32-5:2): “Be kind to one another, compassionate and mutually forgiving, just as God has forgiven you in Christ. Be imitators of God as His dear children. Follow the way of love, even as Christ loves you.” St. Paul provides us a way of conducting ourselves as a Catholic school community always on the road to reform and authenticity. 

I think those who live their ministry working in our Catholic schools should be supported by two Gospel images. The first is the Parable of the Sower, recorded in the Gospels, where the sower spreads the seed equally to all. Some will fall on rocks, some will fall on dry soil and wither and some will take root and grow. The Sower is called to faithfully sow the seed. Catholic schools are called to faithfully sow the seeds of the invitation to meet and to grow in that invitation with Jesus and to know and love the Christian message. Despite the reality that some of the seeds may not take root, we continue to sow. What we will be held accountable for is extending that invitation to all who come into our schools and to grow in that invitation at their own pace. In short, we sow seeds. 

The other message that sustains but also is challenging is Jesus’ statement in Mark’s Gospel, “Allow the children to come to Me, do not forbid them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Or as my Sister of St. Joseph told me when I started teaching, “You are either illuminating the Cross at the front of the classroom, or you are blocking it, there are only two choices.”

So let us celebrate the role Catholic education plays in the development of our students who attend Catholic schools. While some see Catholic schools as providing choice, it is much deeper than that. Catholic schools most fundamentally believe that to educate a student means educating a student academically, socially, physically, but also spiritually. We see our students not as mere cogs to find employment after school is completed, which is important, but rather we are educating our students to live in community, to see their relationship to others, to understand that there is more than what our senses or what is the common flavour of the day, that there are fundamental truths and relationships that our students need to be aware of, to live their lives with the knowledge of something beyond what we daily move through in our lives. 

Catholic education educates not only for today but for the future which lies beyond this life. So, celebrate and support Catholic education, or as W.B. Yeats, said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Let Catholic education continue to light that fire in each person who enters our schools, that is the challenge and the promise we celebrate today. 

(John B. Kostoff is the executive director of OCSOA, the Ontario Catholic Supervisory Officers’ Association, and a published author of a number of books related to Catholic education, leadership and the domestic Church.)

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