The National Catholic Education Association has been providing leadership and service to Catholic education since 1904. NCEAS’s mission is to advance the educational and catechetical mission of the Church and provide leadership and service to its members. This week many Catholic educators will attend the annual National Catholic Education Association Convention in New Orleans. The NCEA Convention and Expo is the largest education association gathering in the nation. Participants in the convention represent all aspects of Catholic and faith-based education, preschool, elementary, secondary, adult education, colleges and universities.
The convention will offer a wide variety of Professional Development sessions that will be informative, uplifting and challenging.
The occasion of the convention prompted me to consider the crucial role of Catholic school educators. Certainly, they do what all educators are called to do. They provide students with the environment and program in which they encounter all aspects of their cultural inheritance. They lead their students to consider absolute values in a life-context; assist them in relating their studies to real-life situations; stimulate their intelligence to attain clarity and inventiveness and help them to spell out the meaning of personal experience.
Catholic educators are called to do more. When Catholic precedes school, Christ is recognized as the whole foundation of the school. His revelation gives new meaning to life and helps the students direct their thoughts, actions and will according to the Gospel. In a Catholic school, all human values find their fulfillment and unity in the person of Christ. He is the one who gives meaning to human life and is the model which the Catholic school offers to its students. The Catholic school task is fundamentally a synthesis of culture and faith and faith and life. The former happens when the Gospel is integrated into all aspects of human knowledge. The latter occurs as the students develop the virtues characteristic of the Christian life (cf. The Catholic School, #33-52).
I want to acknowledge that many fine Catholic educators work in our public schools. Although spoken expression of their Christian faith is not possible in this setting, their good example and Christ like behavior can be a quiet yet powerful example of Gospel values to their students.
Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, former Secretary for the Congregation for Catholic Education, identified five marks or characteristics of Catholic Schools (cf. The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools). One of the characteristics directly addresses the role of the educator. “A final indicator of a school’s authentic catholicity is the vital witness of its teachers and administrators. With them lies the primary responsibility for creating a Christian school climate, as individuals and community” (The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools).
The Catholic educator is called to foster a Catholic worldview across the curriculum, even in the so-called secular subjects. However, if students are to gain a genuine experience of the Church, the example of teachers is also crucial. The witness of adults in the school community is a vital part of the school’s identity. “The central figure in the work of educating . . . is specifically the form of witness. . . . The witness never refers to himself but to something, or rather, to Someone greater than he, whom he has encountered and whose dependable goodness he has sampled” (Benedict XVI, Ecclesial Convention in Rome, 2005).
What educators do and how they act are more significant than what they say – inside and outside the classroom. “The more completely an educator can give concrete witness to the model of the ideal person (Christ) that is being presented to the students, the more this ideal will be believed and imitated” (Lay Catholics in Schools, 32). How often this witness happens in a one-to-one encounter between a student and a teacher. It is important to remember that the Word of God which the teacher imparts is ultimately directed to a single person. As a teacher forms students in the Word of God, as the seed of God’s Word is sown, the seed falls on the individual. How many of us have been profoundly influenced by one teacher — in ways that other students in the same classroom have not been affected in the same way?
Catholic educators are expected to be models for their students by bearing transparent witness to Christ and to the beauty and truth of the Christian message. During his pastoral visit to the U.S., Pope Benedict noted that “every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth” (Address to Catholic Educators, April, 2008). This encounter is cultivated through the interaction of persons within the school community, particularly between students and teachers. The authentic formation of students, most especially the young, requires the personalized accompanying of a teacher. Direct and personal contact between teachers and student is a hallmark of the Catholic school.
We want students in our Catholic schools, from the very youngest pre-school aged student to the university student, to experience Christ and the splendor of the Church. We want them to be fed from the rich doctrine of the Gospel and the Church’s teachings and integrate all of this into their secular subjects and experiences. We want them to be good citizens who can evaluate culture, its positive and negative aspects, and make choices that support the Christian view of life. We want them to be saints, living the great commandment in the circumstances of their daily life so that one day they will live eternally in heaven. So much of what we want for them, depends upon those who encounter them day in and day out, year after year … their teachers. The extent to which the Christian message is transmitted through education depends to a very great extent on the teachers and their personal witness. Paul VI said it so clearly. People listen “more willingly to witness than to teachers, and if they do listen to teachers it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelization in the Modern World, #41).