What Does the Book of Acts Tell Us About Catholic Education?

One of my favorite parts of the Easter season (pilfering jelly beans from my kids’ baskets aside) is the readings from the Acts of the Apostles we hear proclaimed at Mass.  Acts tells us the story of the early Church “ how, after the Lord’s Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the apostles “did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” to the Jews and the Gentiles (5:42). We are told that “many of those who heard the word believed” (4:4) and the “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women” (5:14).

We are also told of the great deeds done by these believers: miraculous healings (3:7; 5:16) and speaking in tongues (2:4-6), yes, but also providing for widows and the poor (4:32; 6:1ff) and proclaiming Christ even in the face of martyrdom (7:59-60; 12:2-3).

So what does the Book of Acts have to tell us about Catholic schools?

As our bishop, Thomas John Paprocki, stated so well in his homily at our recent Principals’ Leadership Conference, the purpose of Catholic schools is not to impart academic knowledge or focus on the “Three Rs.” If that was our purpose there would be no difference between Catholic schools and public schools.  Similarly, the faith-based character of our schools is not simply an “add-on,” something tacked on to the public school model.

Rather, the imparting of the faith — the preaching of the Gospel in word and in deed — is at the very heart and purpose of our Catholic schools. Like the early disciples, our task is to preach Christ to our students and show them through our works what it means to take on the name “Christian.”  We are charged with building up our students to be disciples for Christ. Everything else, no matter how valuable or important in the secular world, is secondary to that charge.

As you listen to the readings from the Acts of the Apostles over the next weeks, pay attention to how the early Church worked to spread the Gospel. It was hard work (and dangerous!) but they persevered with charity and joy. We are called to imitate these saints and martyrs by passing on this faith to those in our care — to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19) and build up the Body of Christ.

What makes for a healthy Catholic school?

This is the question our Diocesan Board of Catholic Education has been wrestling with this year. And, as you may guess, it is not an easy question! There are many different factors that contribute to our schools. But, as we’ve reflected on the question, we’ve settled on three key themes:

Catholicity “ This is the sum total of the Catholic identity of our schools. It starts with an identifiably Catholic environment “ crucifixes and statues in the classrooms, icons on the wall “ but can’t be confined to that. It also includes regular prayer, teachers and administrators who uphold the doctrines of the Church, recognition that we are part of a Church that is larger than our parish, and families that participate regularly in the Sunday Eucharist.

Expertise “ Because our schools are places of learning we need excellent educators to lead them. Teachers with state certification who are engaged in continuing catechetical formation; school boards with members who can contribute their knowledge and skills; principals committed to leading even in difficult times; all of these contribute to the shared knowledge and wisdom needed to help students achieve their potential.

Resources “ Of course, no program can run smoothly without adequate resources in place. This means tuition, of course, but it also means support from the parish as well as corporate and individual donors; the time and talent of volunteers; up-to-date textbooks and technology; and robust fundraising activities such as annual fund drives and auctions.

Which of these is the most important? While I’m tempted to say the first, the truth is that they are interdependent; a Catholic school cannot thrive without all three. A school with a foundation in the Church and a strong endowment, but without a solid curriculum or well-prepared teachers, will not graduate students ready for the next phase of their live. A school with excellent teachers and a vibrant faith life but no funding won’t keep its doors open long!

Our challenge is to keep all three pistons firing in order to maintain the œengine  of our schools.


Happy New Year – Catholic School Style!

It’s the New Year, which means it’s time for resolutions! Of course, if you are like me, you can recycle the same resolutions from last year. (I’m still trying to lose those 15 pounds!) But resolutions don’t just have to be for yourself “ the New Year is the perfect time to resolve to do something different or try something new on behalf of your Catholic school!

Here are five possible New Year’s resolutions you might try implementing:

  1. Increase your volunteer base. Find five parents who have never volunteered before and personally invite them to help with an event.
  2. Create a Facebook page for your school. (Or better yet, get one of those five parents to do it!) Then use it to reach out to alumni!
  3. Invite a representative from your diocesan vocations office — or your pastor! — to talk to your students about the priesthood.
  4. Secretaries are your front line of hospitality! Work with your secretary to better welcome prospective families when they make an inquiry.
  5. Publicly recognize a parent, volunteer, student, teacher, or staff member who has made an especially important contribution to your school. Let everyone know that you have incredible people at your school!

These are just a few suggestions; feel free to share your own in the comments! And if you try one of these, let us know how it goes!

Footnotes and Further Reading – Marketing Your School Online

Today I offered a breakout session at the 2010 Diocesan Adult Enrichment Conference on school marketing in the internet era. The following are footnotes and suggestions for further readings for the attendees:


Web Sites and Articles



The Spiritual Role of the Principal

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak with some of the new principals in our diocese as part of their ongoing formation. I talked briefly about the spiritual role that principals play in Catholic schools and what it means to be a spiritual leader.

This seems an important topic to me because, while principals may receive training in management, curriculum, and finances in their education programs, very few get formed in what it means to work in a specifically Catholic educational setting.

There is any number of topics that we could have talked about, but I distilled them into five points:

  1. The primary job of a Catholic school — and therefore the primary responsibility of the principal — is to build disciples for Christ. Everything else is secondary.
  2. Principals must encourage parents to assume their role as the primary catechists of their children. Parents cannot outsource religious instruction to schools or PSR programs. For better or for worse, children will follow their parents’ example.
  3. Principals are responsible for the spiritual formation of their staffs. This means more than just the occasional diocesan formation class; it means forming them through prayer, retreats, and spiritual reading, and inviting them to participate in the faith.
  4. As part of their oversight of curriculum, principals must ensure that the catechetical textbooks and materials used in their school conform to the teachings of the Catholic Church.
  5. Finally, principals must be an example of joyful faith and holiness to their staff, faculty, and students.

Admittedly this is a tall order! But, as spiritual leaders acting on behalf of their pastors and the Church, principals are responsible in assuring that our schools are not just placing of academic learning, but places where the faith is nurtured and students can become the saints they are called to be.

Catholic Schools: The More Things Change…

I recently started reading Parish School: A History of American Catholic Parochial Education from Colonial Times to the Present by Timothy Walch. It’s a high-level view of the issues that have confronted the Church’s educational mission in America since the first settlers arrived in this country.

I’ve just hit the Reconstruction Era and already I am struck at how little has changed in 150 years. Then, as now, priests and bishops sought to combat the influence of the wider culture by providing for alternative educational opportunities for Catholic youth. Parish schools were seen as a particularly effective way to ensure the faith of the next generation, especially since the public education system was dominated by the nation’s Protestantism.

As a result, the country’s ecclesial leaders fretted over the fact that many Catholic children neither attended a Catholic school nor received religious instruction in the parish. In 1840 the bishops issued a pastoral letter that stated, in part,

It is no easy matter to preserve the faith of your children in the midst of so many difficulties. We are always better pleased to have a separate system of education for the children of our communion because we have found by painful experience, that in any common effort it was always expected that our distinctive principles of religious belief in practice should be yielded to the demands of those who thought it proper to charge us with error.

In other words, the country’s bishops saw Catholic education as a vital means of preserving the faith among young people in the face of a society which valued assimilation over tradition. They were also frustrated by parents who saw education not as a means of forming our children in the Catholic faith but   as a means of upward social mobility through academic learning.

Is this ringing any bells?

That we are still wrestling with these questions over 150 years later is both frustrating and somewhat reassuring. On the one hand, it would be hoped that we would have made better headway in learning how best to pass on the faith to the next generation. On the other hand, it’s comforting to know that there is nothing new under the sun and that the Church has endured such problems before.

Still, it would help if every Catholic parent and student understood better the words that Pope Benedict XVI recently related to the Catholic school children of Great Britain:

In your Catholic schools, there is always a bigger picture over and above the individual subjects you study, the different skills you learn. All the work you do is placed in the context of growing in friendship with God, and all that flows from that friendship. So you learn not just to be good students, but good citizens, good people… A good school provides a rounded education for the whole person. And a good Catholic school, over and above this, should help all its students to become saints.