October 5, 2018

Christ the Cornerstone

The fundamental characteristics of a Catholic school

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

What are the fundamental characteristics of a Catholic school? What constitutes a school’s “Catholic identity”?

It’s not the externals—the crucifixes on the classroom walls, the pictures and statues of the saints, the habits worn by religious women and men, or the little boxes or rice bowls used to collect money for the missions. These are important physical symbols (sacramentals) that remind us of deeper truths, but they are not the essential things that make a school Catholic.

There are several different ways to describe Catholic identity, but here are three fundamental elements: evangelization, catechesis and social justice.

First of all, a Catholic school must witness in a public way to the person of Jesus Christ and to his message (evangelization). Catholic schools exist to proclaim the Gospel. Everything in the school—its curriculum, its liturgies and retreats, its sports activities, and its service programs—should provide students (also staff and families) with opportunities to encounter the person of Jesus Christ, to become his disciples and to proclaim to the whole world our salvation in him.

The symbols mentioned earlier remind us, and assist us, in our evangelizing mission, but the most important element in a school’s Catholic identity is its commitment to make Christ present to everyone who attends the school or who comes into contact with it.

Secondly, a Catholic school must teach the Catholic faith (catechesis). The mystery of God, as revealed to us by the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the primary content of a Catholic education. Everything else that we teach—as part of a genuine commitment to educational excellence—is an elaboration on the wonders of God’s creation and the history of our salvation. All of the academic disciplines reveal in partial and preliminary ways the working of the Holy Spirit in our world from the beginning of time. The more we learn about math and science, diverse languages and cultures, and the ups and downs of world history and the history of our local communities, the more we discover that the teachings of our Church, as contained in Scripture and in our Catholic tradition, represent the truth, the way things really are. Schools that are truly Catholic are vibrant learning environments that promote curiosity and an openness to new ways of living and learning.

Finally, in order to be truly Catholic, a school must teach its students and all members of the school community to reach out to others and accept responsibility for the well-being of all God’s creation (social justice). Catholic schools do not exist for their own sakes. They exist for the good of their students and the communities they serve.

Frequently, a Catholic school is an “anchor” in its neighborhood, a source of stability and moral integrity. There are socio-economic reasons for this anchor effect, but more fundamentally a school that is truly Catholic serves its neighborhood and community because of its recognition that we cannot love God as we should unless we also love our neighbor. Social justice is a constitutive element of the Gospel. That means it must also be a constitutive element of the curriculum and the daily life of every Catholic school.

Evangelization, catechesis and social justice are essential to a school’s Catholic identity. Everything about a Catholic school must give witness to the teaching and the message of Jesus Christ. Catholic teaching must be integrated into every aspect of the school’s curriculum and programs. And the school must help its students reach out beyond parish and school boundaries to serve the needs of others.

A school is truly Catholic when it recognizes that it is called to accomplish these three fundamental objectives: to introduce us to the person of Jesus Christ, to help us understand the world through the wisdom of our Catholic teaching, and to challenge us to serve the needs of others as Jesus did.

Here in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, we are blessed with outstanding Catholic schools and with parish religious education programs that are distinguished in their Catholic identity. Let’s pray for our teachers and catechists, our pastors and our parents, and especially for all the children, youth, young adults and adults in our parishes and schools through central and southern Indiana who give so much (and gain so much) as they meet Jesus, learn the wonders of God’s creation and strive to make our world better! †

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