Knowledge, Virtue, and Holiness
by Archbishop Salvatore Cordilione
Our Catholic schools exist to serve the Church's mission of sanctification and evangelization.
In his first Encyclical, Lumen fidei ("The Light of Faith"), Pope Francis begins with the following words:
The light of Faith: this is how the Church's tradition speaks of the great gift brought by Jesus. In John's Gospel, Christ says of himself: 'I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness' (Jn 12:46)…. To Martha, weeping for the death of her brother Lazarus, Jesus said: Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?' (Jn 11:40). Those who believe, see; they see with a light that illumines their entire journey, for it comes from the risen Christ, the morning star which never sets.
The students in our Catholic schools are at the beginning of their journey of life, and it is your privilege, as their teachers, to accompany them at this critical stage of their life's journey, a stage that for many of them will determine the trajectory of their entire life. This teaching from so early on in Pope Francis' Petrine ministry clearly reflects the emphasis he places on the theology of accompaniment; it also, I believe, gives a helpful definition to what our Catholic schools are called to do: journey with our young people out of the darkness into the light of the risen Christ.
While they may not think of it in exactly this way, parents do entrust their children to Catholic schools with the expectation that our schools will form and inform their children as well as shield them from harm. I am grateful to you for all you do to help illuminate, order, and sanctify the lives of the teenagers entrusted to your care. In addition to presenting material to them in the classroom, you coach them in making sense out of their experiences in the Church and in our modern culture. Students look to you for guidance. Although as freshmen and sophomores they may be reticent to think deeply, you encourage them and lead them on, and eventually most students do desire to think critically. But they also want to understand life, which poses many conundrums to them. The students listen to you and watch you for guidance. Many of you have an impact on their lives that is humbling to you. I am grateful for your service and I pray that students indeed listen to you and imitate the fundamental human and religious qualities you share with them. Like many of you, I, too, can think back to teachers in my high school who have had a lifelong effect on me, and one in particular — and not because of what he taught (although yes, he was a great band director), but because of the kind of person he was and the values he modeled to us in word and deed.
And like me, I'm sure many, if not all, of you also have wonderful memories of your teenage years. Those are years filled with wonder, or at least they are meant to be: discovering new friends and new activities, testing our limits and the limits imposed on us, with all of the successes and failures that involves, and sometimes doing dumb and even dangerous things, morally as well as physically, and then receiving the punishment that goes with it. But thank God for parents' admonitions, for honest evaluations by teachers, coaches and moderators, and for the help given by the Church and the Holy Spirit.
My subsequent comments take this enchanted high school world for granted. Our hopes and prayers are that teenagers grow in wisdom, age and grace during the four years they are entrusted to us. The culture of a Catholic high school is both challenging and reassuring for students and teachers. Teachers confront difficult challenges, but most teachers accept all the trials and disappointments with good humor, because they are delighted to be in the presence of happy, lively students. At the same time, many students at this age need big injections of intellectual curiosity. Challenges there are, but the delights and satisfactions are also abundant.
Teachers enjoy the challenge of teaching students and getting them to think on their own, to think critically about the human condition, and to think carefully about the role their Catholic faith actually plays and ought to play in their lives. A crucial challenge for Catholic high schools is striking the correct balance between fostering careful reasoning and promoting Catholic faith and practice. A Catholic school should also offer students clear ideas of what constitutes human excellence and success.
II. The Mission of Catholic Schools
Catholic high schools enjoy a solid reputation as excellent institutions of education and formation. Experience highlights three factors in particular that contribute to overall success of Catholic high schools. The first factor is high academic expectations for all students, no matter what their cultural, linguistic or ethnic background. The second factor is that Catholic schools teach young people to apprehend truth using both faith and reason. We know from our Catholic tradition that both are necessary: each must make its unique contribution that only it can make, and serve as a check on the other lest knowledge be reduced to simple pious platitudes on the one hand or, on the other, superficial or self-serving assertions that cannot see beyond the material world. The third factor is that principals and presidents at Catholic high schools seek to hire teachers who are interested in being involved with students outside the classroom. As coaches, moderators or facilitators of different events at the school, these teachers share their hopes and skills with the students in a more personal way. This has a significant impact on students.
The three factors — high academic expectations, faith and reason, and teachers interacting with students both in and outside the classroom — contribute to building a Catholic worldview. All of this, of course, must be reflected in the school's mission statement. Catholic schools have mission statements that focus on these factors and what the goal of Catholic education is. Mission statements that are clear and compelling help students, faculty, staff and parents alike to know that they are working in a Catholic educational environment and to understand what that means.
In what has become by now a classic phrase in the world of Catholic education, Catholic schools help students to excel in life because of our understanding of what our schools are all about: education of the whole person. As we know from science, philosophy and our Catholic faith, the whole person, especially the whole person redeemed by the Incarnation, Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, is wonderfully complex. The root meaning of the word "educate" is "to lead out from." That is, a Catholic education draws out all the potential in the whole person of every student, leading the student to true human flourishing and thus becoming the person God has created them to be.
As the Fathers of the Church emphasized, human potential increased greatly with the coming of Christ, the New Adam. By being baptized in Christ Jesus, Christians participate in the divine life of Christ. Because of this, every Christian has the calling to be holy — certainly one of the truths of our faith emphasized at the Second Vatican Council. A Christian — teenager or adult — is expected to use all the means available to them to fulfill this vocation common to every Christian.
So the challenge is a complex one. The whole person involves the intellectual, physical, emotional, social, moral and spiritual dimensions of each student. A Catholic high school is certainly an educational institution, but it is also has the charge of instilling in its students morality and growth toward holiness. God speaks directly and indirectly to students through the moral challenges they face, through prayer, through study, and in the sacraments.
Even though the focus is on the education of the whole person, this occurs in the context of a community, the high school itself. Similarly, holiness for the student is achieved by working within the Church, which is what Jesus preached when he spoke about the Kingdom of God. Full flourishing of the human individual occurs through participation in the life of the Church.