Reflection: Catholic Education Is a Verb

Robert Sandoz, OFM Features

Since 1974, National Catholic Schools Week has provided an annual celebration of Catholic education in the United States. To commemorate the occasion — which this year extends from Jan. 29 through Feb. 4  — a friar whose first ministry as a Franciscan was in high school education, writes about experiences and actions that will advance human flourishing.

The week celebrating Catholic schools provides the opportunity to consider in a fresh way the meaning and significance of this long and noble ministry. I should say from the onset that, for me, Catholic education is a verb. It names specific actions.

The first of these actions awakens within the student the consciousness of sacred time. The awareness of feasts and seasons is not part of our DNA; it is learned. Words such as “Advent” and “Lent” are not in the common parlance of today. Christmas and Easter are one-day events whose main characters are Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. The lived reality of this special marking of time truly celebrates the life and ministry of Jesus. The beautiful, meaningful and relevant celebrations of the feasts and seasons make Jesus real in the life of the student. It’s not just a one off event, but a living ritual.

The second of the actions is the witness to the life of Jesus. Students of all ages are amazingly alert to the authentic. They can very quickly perceive the real deal. When the students encounter a person who gives sincere witness of Gospel living, they experience Jesus. They feel the presence of God. They feel good in the presence of that person and they want what he/she has. Initially, they may not name this presence as God but they will know that, whatever the name, it is good and they want it.

Moreover, when students get in touch with the reality, they share it. This is the occasion of leadership. They want to share this good thing with their friends.

The third of the actions is storytelling. As a culture, we are losing our metanarratives. This is even truer of our Catholic culture. There is a growing lack of familiarity with the life of Jesus and even greater estrangement from the Hebrew Scriptures. The culture of a Catholic school keeps these foundational stories alive and real in the life of the community. Young people, from their elementary, high school and through their college years are formed in the consciousness of the faith. From Acts 17:28 we remember that “…in him we live and move and have our being.” It is in this story telling that we engage in the living, moving and being in Christ.

As you see from the Venn diagram above, these are not discreet actions that happen in isolation. Rather, the circles “pulse” – expanding and contracting as the actions take place. It is in the ebb and flow of energy in and through the prayer, liturgy, witnessing, leadership and storytelling; that all in the school community come to experience the abiding, nurturing, sustaining presence of God.

While easy to speak on these things, it can be a bit of a challenge to leap into the world of students. Today in my ministry, probably the most shocking experience of prayer and liturgy was our days of Lenten meditations. We invited the entire school community into our local parish church, settled them with some Taize music, presented a short guided meditation and let them meditate in silence on an aspect of the life of Jesus and how this was a part of their lives. Silence. High-risk, poor, urban kids meditating on the life of Jesus and their lives — in silence. It was deafening. Their bidding prayers following this were astonishing.

It is always interesting for me to observe those teachers with whom the students “hang out.” Who are the teachers or coaches to whom the students naturally gravitate? Without exception, it is the staff person who treats them with love and respect. Again, the faculty person would probably not call it the love of Jesus, but that is what it is. The students naturally gravitate toward the person who witnesses to what is “holy.” Above all, the students know the sincere expression of this gospel love and they are drawn to the source.

How vivid the memory is of a lengthy, informal discussion I had with students a few years ago about the movie Avatar. They were into the spectacle of the movie and the breathtaking action. It is a beautiful movie to watch. But a man and a woman in the perfect garden with the Tree of Souls in the center had no connection to any story with which they were familiar. Creating some linkage to another epic foundation story – a religious one, at that – was something of a challenge. The obvious was not so obvious. Helping the students to make the leap — to become aware of the metanarrative that leads to so much human understanding and the social contract — was a wonderful experience.

Silent meditation, especially on the life of Jesus, staff hanging with students for no reason other than love, respect, belonging, and conversations opening up a scripture allusion for students from one of their movies — these make up the culture in a Catholic school. These do not happen just anywhere. They happen in Catholic schools and colleges.

All of these are experiences that significantly advance human flourishing. Catholic schools and colleges at their best promote, celebrate and live these hallmarks of true and lasting human flourishing: prayer and liturgy, witness and leadership and storytelling.

Fr. Robert is president of Christ the King Preparatory School in Newark, N.J.  The Nebraska native professed his first vows as a Franciscan in 1975 and has worked at varied schools around the country. He has also been involved with retreat ministry, parish ministry, urban ministry and various chaplaincy roles and has had ministerial experiences in Guatemala, Japan and Zimbabwe.

Editor’s note: Friars interested in submitting a reflection about a feast day, holiday or other timely topic for publishing in a future issue of HNP Today should contact the HNP Communications Office at  The previous reflection, about Martin Luther King Day, was written by Henry Fulmer, OFM. Additional seasonal reflections can be found on the Spiritual Resources page of the website.

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