What does it mean to be an authentically Catholic school?
By Rachel Gleeson
For as long as I have heard people talk about Catholic schools, I have heard them talk about what it means to be a truly Catholic school. Even before I was a teacher, I was part of conversations around this question. As an educator, I was involved in a committee focused on promoting Catholic identity at our school. We organized service opportunities and faith events, and even brought in Jason Evert to speak about chastity. Those events helped foster faith life on campus, but the question remained. What is it that makes a school authentically Catholic?
Is a school authentically Catholic because of the number of Masses it has in a month? Is it determined by how many service projects students are involved in? Is it based on having top-notch theology teachers? What I believe people mean when they talk about a truly Catholic school is a vibrant, orthodox faith community. While Masses and service may be indicators of that, they do not guarantee that a school is authentically Catholic.
A truly Catholic school will certainly give the sacraments a place of importance in their schedule. This, however, is not always the same as how often Mass is celebrated. Some schools have Mass once a month in an auditorium or gym because that is the only room where their community can gather together. Other schools have Mass every day in a beautiful chapel on campus. Despite appearances, however, one is not necessarily more devout than the other. That first school may be doing all they can to reverently celebrate the Sacrament while the other may have become complacent in their outer trappings of devotion.
Additionally, what is sadly common to see are Catholic schools that celebrate Mass together but neglect the other sacraments. It is a terrible disservice to students to not offer Reconciliation frequently. They need it! Unfortunately, there are some schools that take this too far and mandate Confession for their students. If students are not open to grace, they simply won’t receive it no matter how many times they go through the motions. As for the sacraments of initiation, these can be unfortunately relegated to rites of passage or even graduation requirements.
If we cannot measure whether a school is authentically Catholic by their sacramental offerings what can we use to set the bar? Perhaps we need to look at the fruit. Could our catholicity by measured by our commitment to social justice? It is important to provide opportunities for students to reach out and get involved in their communities. Often though, particularly for older students, community service is a graduation requirement rather than an authentic expression of their love of neighbor. A commitment to service can indicate a lively faith, but it doesn’t always. Many may simply serve because they want to be “a good person” or because they feel good about themselves afterwards. Neither are bad reasons exactly, but they are not the motivations of virtue and compassion.
The outer appearance of devotion does not always indicate devotion. For some, it may even be a false attempt at sanctity through good works. Neither a person nor an institution can be measured on its outward attributes to know for certain that it is authentically Catholic. They can be an indicator of an orthodox and vibrant faith life but this doesn’t always hold true.
If the authenticity of a Catholic school cannot be measured by appearances, how do we define it?
A truly Catholic school will certainly bring the sacraments to students and give them opportunities to serve others. A truly Catholic school will also have quality, orthodox theological instruction. There are plenty of stories that circulate about less-than-faithful catechesis received at schools that claim to be Catholic. This doesn’t necessarily mean all theology teachers must have graduate degrees. What is more important is that they are orthodox, joyful witnesses. In fact, ideally, all the adults that students interact with in our Catholic schools should be witnesses to a lively Catholic faith.
The difference between an authentically Catholic school and one that only appears to be so is its spirit. A truly Catholic school puts Christ at the center. It holds fast to the faith and remains committed to speaking the truth. It includes the Sacraments and values them. It provides opportunities for service and fosters an honest love of neighbor. A truly Catholic school should be in the business of forming saints.
Ultimately, an authentically Catholic school is one led, guided, and formed by authentically Catholic people. A vibrant community is not built, but grown and cultivated. A school culture is shaped by the people who are part of it. To have a truly Catholic school we need leaders who understand and prioritize that vision. We need to be those leaders. We need to live an authentically Catholic life and help others to do the same.
Rachel Gleeson is a campus minister in Colorado.
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