WASHINGTON (CNS) — Next week, Catholic schools in the U.S. will celebrate their special mission during National Catholic Schools Week, an annual celebration entering its 46th year.
That mission and foundation of Catholic education are directly related to evangelization, says the head of the National Catholic Educational Association.
Catholic schools are obligated to evangelize simply because that is the core and mission of the Catholic Church, according to Thomas Burnford, president and CEO of the NCEA.
“The apostles told the good news of Jesus Christ, and Catholic schools are an essential and integral ministry of the Catholic Church,” he told Catholic News Service.
Nationwide, 1.8 million students are enrolled in 6,300 Catholic schools, he noted. Additionally, 80 percent of students are Catholic, and the remaining 20 percent are non-Catholic.
Despite the percentage difference, the mission of Catholic education is the same for Catholic and non-Catholic students, Burnford explained.
“The teaching of the faith, the way we witness the Catholic faith fully to Catholic students is the same for all students. All students are invited and welcomed to participate fully in the whole culture of the school, the formation of the school and the life of the school,” Burnford said.
Evangelization is present within schools because students are presented with a Catholic worldview that reveals the reality of God and the Gospel through the curriculum, he said.
“In that way, we are evangelizing students by giving them a real understanding of the world and society. Everyone in a Catholic school is being moved along in the process of evangelization and outreach,” Burnford said.
Acknowledging the inherent relationship between Catholic education and evangelization in the presence of faith, community and identity, Pope Francis in a June 2018 address said: “Schools and universities need to be consistent and show continuity between their foundational mission and the church’s mission of evangelization.”
He delivered the address to members of the Gravissimum Educationis Foundation, which he established in October 2015 at the invitation of the Congregation for Catholic Education to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education.
In that same address, Pope Francis proposed a challenge to members of the foundation, which aims to renew the church’s dedication to Catholic education, saying: “To fulfill your mission, therefore, you must lay its foundations in a way consistent with our Christian identity, establish means appropriate for the quality of study and research and pursue goals in harmony with service to the common good.”
In the Diocese of Providence, “evangelization, catechesis and the moral formation of youth is at the heart of our mission,” said Daniel Ferris, superintendent of Catholic Schools.
“Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has consistently reminded us that as Catholic educators this is the reason we have Catholic schools,” he said.
Ferris noted that a Catholic education plays a very important role in keeping young people grounded in their faith.
“With an increasing number of children in our schools coming from families that are unchurched or who rarely worship on Sunday mornings, we can’t expect faith formation at home,” Ferris said, noting how teachers must work hard to build partnerships with parents to teach their children about the faith and to properly prepare them to receive the sacraments.
“Still, we see the work of God’s grace every day in our schools. Children are coming to know and love Jesus,” Ferris remarked.
He spoke of how many students have become initiated into the faith following their study about Catholicism in school, including a freshman at Bishop Hendricken High School who was baptized two weeks ago by school chaplain Father Brian Morris.
Ferris said he hears of other students in elementary schools asking for baptism or wanting to receive their first Eucharist, a process, he said, that sometimes brings a family back to the faith and can mean a recommitment to parish life.
“Of course, even those students who come from Catholic homes that attend Mass every Sunday need to hear the Gospel and be taught about the love of God in Jesus Christ. Don’t we all?” he asked. “What’s so great about Catholic schools is that this is the daily curriculum.”
Elisabeth Sullivan, executive director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, identified roles within Catholic schools that help bring Catholic and non-Catholic students together. “I think Catholic schools have a unique opportunity to provide hope in a world that is increasingly beset by hopelessness. A world without God is a world without hope,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan believes that Catholic education is uniquely distinct from other education systems due to its long tradition of conveying the inherent and inseparable relationship between faith and reason. Consequently, Catholic schools “restore what the industrialized model of education has stripped from the classroom — an understanding of the meaning and purpose of things,” she told CNS.
Catholic education asks the deeper questions, regarding the nature of something and its purpose, according to Sullivan. “Secular education can’t offer that, can’t decide on a meaning or a purpose, so it has to stay away, and therefore, it’s incomplete,” she explained.
Mary Pat Donoghue, executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, expressed a similar viewpoint regarding evangelization efforts within Catholic schools. Donoghue said because formation in a Catholic school is integral, students are not solely taught religious doctrine in a religion course.
“What we seek to do is bring forward the church’s intellectual tradition and form their minds in all of the content and areas that they study. This is an excellent tool of evangelization because it exposes kids not just to Catholic practices, regarding prayer and liturgy, but also to a Catholic understanding of reality.”
Donoghue is hopeful that Catholic schools will continue to fulfill their mission of bringing children and young adults into a relationship with Christ.
As populations shift, she said, many Catholic schools will be located in new areas, creating a changing landscape. However, Donoghue said that Catholic education in America has been around for centuries and “will renew itself by turning toward the church’s own tradition and that can be the way forward in the future.”
Rhode Island Catholic Executive Editor Rick Snizek contributed to this story.