This morning, I had the opportunity to address the principals of all the Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, both grade school and high school. Here are my remarks:
In prior ages, schools were populated by sisters and priests who taught students. My parents remember being taught by Sisters of the Precious Blood. When I taught at Elder High School, there were legends about the time when there were only 2 lay men on staff as faculty. By the time I taught there, I was one of only two priests. Times have indeed changed. In order to build a culture of vocations within our Catholic Schools, we must now rely on the principals and lay teachers to encourage and foster a culture of discernment and vocations in which our young people recognize that each one of them has been given a unique call from God to do something special, and if that student does not do it, it will go undone in the Church and in the world.
To help accomplish this fact, I think the model of seminary formation, with its Four Pillars of Formation, might well be adapted to life in Catholic Schools. In seminary formation, we talk of human formation (recognizing those unique gifts and talents each candidate presents as a man), academic formation (learning the deep and profound mysteries of our faith), spiritual formation (to be a priest is to be a man of prayer)¸ and pastoral formation (applying all that is studied and learned into the daily life of his future parishioners.)
As I have often said in presentations, what is for the priest, is also for Catholics, if maybe to a lesser degree. These four pillars can and should be woven into the fabric of the schools that claim a Catholic Identity, should be aspects of the ongoing development of the teachers who form the students, and provide a basis for all that we do as Catholic educators. During assessment, these pillars can provide a basis for evaluating the ongoing projects of the school to provide a clear focus moving forward.
One note before moving further, however: without the example of discipleship among the leadership of the school, these will be empty and hollow words, a noisy cymbal, a clashing gong. This approach must be backed up by the lived example of being a disciple of Christ on the part of the principal, administration and faculty of the School.
This framework, which I am suggesting, recognizes that as Catholic Educators, we do not form just the minds of our students, but that we form the entire person as a child of God. Only through this, we will be able to establish this culture of vocations.
We must also be intentional about setting this quest for discipleship in the context of the Church. We must equip our students to know the dangers of being spiritual without being religious, for then, so often, we fall into a Therapeutic Moralistic Deism. The call to an ongoing conversion of heart is lost, the death to self to live for the other is no longer heard. It needs to be re-enforced among our teachers, modeled by our principals.
A few practical suggestions:
1) Be respectful of your pastor(s) and of the Church. Yes, every priest has his own weaknesses. If you know of your pastor’s weaknesses in an all too real way, provide him opportunities in which his weaknesses will not show. I once heard the story of a mother walking out of Sunday Mass with her teenaged children, who once again were complaining about their priest. She wheeled on them: ‘How will you ever be able to discern the priesthood if you only associate the priesthood with complaints?’ Be positive!
2) Invite the priest/pastor into the school! If he is uncomfortable, make for a good situation for him. If he absolutely refuses, ask if other priests and/or religious can be invited in. Help the students to see that there is more to the priesthood than just Mass. Have him tell his vocation story at some point during the year, too! One pastor I know of has committed to teaching every class for religion at least once a week. He routinely gets five to seven families in RCIA/C from a school population that has a significant number of non-Catholics.
3) Take advantage of opportunities presented by the Diocese: We just had our third Charis Teachers’ Retreat, have you sent a teacher from your school? This is a great way to recognize the need for an ongoing spiritual development. The Vocation Office publishes materials for Vocation Awareness Week every year, are these materials used in your school? If it does not work during January, move it to some other time. Is the Vocation Prayer used at school Masses or other times during the week? Some schools have traveling chalices/crucifixes go through the classrooms at school, an easy project to do!
4) Either visit the seminary, or if it is too far, invite seminarians, those in religious formation or the Vocation Director into the school for a presentation to help make it real for the students. Vocation Directors talk of the 11/11 rule: the best time to present is at 11 years of age (5th grade) or 11th grade. It seems, these are times when the students are most open to hearing about the possibility.
5) Recognize the vocations in your midst. 36% of young people think about a vocation at some point in their lives, have you helped to identify them? I think it is an admirable goal for every parish to send a son to the seminary and a daughter to the convent at least every eight years. For those in Catholic Grade Schools, that is one current student. From High Schools, I would think there are several grads per year who have vocations, when is the last time someone entered the seminary or religious formation right out of your high school?
6) Insist all your teachers support and defend the faith, instead of going against it. I heard from students while I was teaching that another teacher told them: ‘You don’t have to go to Mass every Sunday.’ Of course, they listen to the easy way out instead of the challenge to die to self on that weekly basis. Are the materials used in the school consistent with a Catholic world view? At one point, my niece was given The Golden Compass’ books for her birthday (from the other side of the family), books that are anti-Catholic in their world view. I asked my sister to get rid of them and sent my niece the Chronicles of Narnia the next day as a way to enrich her imagination in a way consistent with the Church.
7) Finally, as we heard just before lunch, celebrate Mass well for school Masses. Help your students experience the transcendence and ‘other-worldliness’ of the Mass, model it for them, help them to know Christ through these celebrations.
To close, please do not see these suggestions as ‘extras,’ but rather as part of the fabric of the culture of your school. Then, vocations truly will erupt: to the priesthood, religious/consecrated life and strong and committed marriages. What a blessing you can provide for our Church and our world.
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