Committing to Your School's Catholic Identity and Mission

About this article

This article features the "one-minute wisdom" of Saint Mary's Press faith community workshop participants on overcoming one obstacle to building faith community in schools: the lack of widespread commitment to the Catholic identity and mission of the school. Ranging from faculty and staff retreats that work on a shared mission statement, to prayer, and to the identification of core values and unifying themes, this article gives real and practical advice to those who need ideas to bring everyone back to a faithfulness to mission and Catholic identity.

A group of fifty-four religion teachers, campus ministers, and administrators from thirty-seven Catholic high schools across the United States gathered in June 1995 to share dreams, struggles, and moments of grace around the theme of building faith community in their schools. Saint Mary's Press hosted the three-day workshop on the campus of Saint Mary's University, Winona, Minnesota, where the Press is located.

The workshop gave the participants the opportunity to pool their considerable wisdom and experience. In an exercise early in the workshop, they had to identify the notorious "obstacles to building faith community" in their schools. They quickly generated a huge list, and then narrowed and condensed it to five main obstacles (given here in no particular order):

  • lack of widespread commitment to the Catholic identity and mission of the school
  • lack of communication across the school
  • lack of finances and time to foster faith community
  • differences that seem to divide people--for example, racial, cultural, religious, economic, academic, gender, and individual
  • lack of orientation to prayer and spirituality, especially shared prayer

All the participants then had the chance to address, in writing, at least one of those obstacles, offering a piece of "one-minute wisdom" about how to deal with that obstacle from their own experience. When they offered some of those pieces of wisdom aloud for the whole group to hear, it was clear that creativity and grace were holding sway over discouragement and defeat.

Here we will sample a few pieces of "one-minute wisdom" that participants addressed to just one of the above obstacles:


  • lack of widespread commitment to the Catholic identity and mission of the school

    A Shared Mission Statement


On a faculty retreat, we worked out the entire school mission statement. Groups worked out the priorities of our school and wrote statements. Then we rewrote a statement using everyone's ideas. At faculty meetings, we then talked about the mission. And we used the mission statement at the student council retreat to analyze what our goal and mission should be this coming year. Liz Baker and Dave Woolwine, Saint Mary's High School, Independence, MO

Two years ago at our school, we hired a new administrator, and he gave us time to work together with faculty and parents and students to come up with a mission statement, asking what we wanted from our school. In the processing that was done, we came up with the mission statement that has guided us throughout these years. Our mission: "Evangelization: to make the Kingdom of God a living reality in the lives of our students." Whenever we have been making decisions, we have gone back to our mission statement, asking, "How does it fit?" This has helped us make difficult decisions. In connection with this, our administration is done collaboratively, with a team of people representing the areas of our school. The team meets weekly to address problems, make decisions, lend support. Mary Ricke, Spalding Catholic High School, Granville, IA

To begin the school year, the school brought in a facilitator to help us develop a mission statement. The high school faculty had to talk it out. In our discussions, we realized how the non-Catholic faculty felt (inferior, uncomfortable, lacking Catholic knowledge). This was an eye-opener! We had to share our faith with the non-Catholic faculty. . . . We can share through instruction, lectures. We found, too, that non-Catholic faculty can be a great resource for comparative religion classes, as guest speakers. This discussion enabled all of us to learn. Irene Koester, Saint Anthony High School, Effingham, IL

We begin the school year with a faculty retreat focusing on the school's mission. Then there are weekly faculty meetings to share difficulties and successes with the mission. We have a quarterly involvement in the program Sharing the Faith [a two-year program for faculty in Catholic schools, published by the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA)]. And the faculty have ready access to the principal and vice-principal when needed. Judy Taylor, Mount Saint Mary's High School, Oklahoma City, OK

Finding Shared Mission in Prayer

Once a month the faculty has a prayer time, prayer service, or Mass, and faculty issues are addressed. Generally there is a real peaceful spirit after the faculty has prayed together. The whole school is on a delayed-opening schedule. The faculty comes in at 8:00 a.m. The students come in at 9:45 a.m. Mary Benner, Monsignor Donovan High School, Toms River, NJ

The Kairos Retreat Program for seniors has opened the door for articulation of our mission as a Catholic community. The opportunity to serve as a faculty leader on a Kairos Retreat has "sparked" growth and greater understanding of self, friends, family, and faith. This has really enriched our overall school community. "Old-timers" have been able to reconcile, remember, and rekindle relationships; it has revitalized the value and reward of their teaching ministry. Patrick Taylor, Bellarmine College Preparatory, San Jose, CA

Our school has had a problem convincing "nonreligion" faculty that they too share the mission of conveying Christian values in whatever field they teach--"all of us are religious educators" is the realization we wanted to convey. After our last North Central Evaluation, we created a Spiritual Development Committee to begin the arduous process of involving all faculty in religious development, their own first, in some fashion or another. We began to plan afternoons of prayer, and now we also plan one of the in-service days at the beginning of the school year and attempt--through shared responsibilities on those days for lunch, liturgical celebrations, exercises, and faith sharing--to form a more cohesive religious bond among faculty. Openness to and willingness to contribute to these experiences has grown over the last several years by all faculty, and this growing interdependent spirit we hope will create a broader vision of mission at our school. Bette Schmitt, Rosary High School, Saint Louis, MO

Core Values and Unifying Themes

Our school has identified the five core values of the sponsoring community (Daughters of Charity) as the emphasis for prayer and spiritual development opportunities for the faculty. These core values are articulated to students at orientation and modeled through the year. Examples: One core value is quality service. Teachers provide quality service to students so that when the students are discussing service projects or volunteering within the school, quality is emphasized. Seton students are expected to follow through on commitments, and so on. Another core value is respect. Teachers are noted for caring for each student. Sr. Helen Marie Kling, DC, Elizabeth Seton High School, Bladensburg, MD

To foster a greater awareness of the Catholic identity of our school, we have instituted a coordinated program for the infusion of Gospel values across the curriculum. In this way, all faculty members become ministers in the school. Fr. Kevin Richter, Saint Mary's High School, Remsen, IA

In the future, we're going to try a spiritual theme each year, to focus on a particular aspect of mission, and carry this out through banners, posters, prayer, and community experiences each quarter--that is, one community day each quarter dedicated to expressing or carrying out that particular theme. Judy Taylor, Mount Saint Mary's High School, Oklahoma City, OK

The student council, in conjunction with the personal counselor, chooses a theme for the year (e.g., "Breaking down the barriers," "Our stories paint the future"). This theme is used for orientation, for retreats, and for various discussions throughout the year.

Also, the [sponsoring religious order's] Foundress Day is celebrated school wide annually and is used as a chance to reinforce the reasons for the existence of the school. Sr. Mary E. Glavin, SNJM, Academy of the Holy Names High School, Tampa, FL

Hiring Processes

The hiring process at our school includes questioning the suitability of the person to live in and carry out the mission. We are fortunate in that our school principal has a real sixth sense in screening out applications of individuals not suited to the mission. Faculty members who are not suited to the mission rarely last more than a year. At the heart of our mission is a true love of each other. In the years I've taught at my school, I have noticed that those who do not survive in our system are those who do not really love young people. Pam Reidy, Notre Dame Academy, Worcester, MA

Every faculty member hired, no matter what his or her field, has had an interview relative to the specific mission of the school and the expectations of faculty members to live and to promote that mission. Sr. Mary E. Glavin, SNJM, Academy of the Holy Names High School, Tampa, FL

Sharing the Vision Day by Day

The religious studies department members do not present themselves as responsible for the faith mission and vision of the community. This really helps others take ownership. Planning for religious ceremonies, and so on, is not specifically relegated to the religious studies department. Pam Reidy, Notre Dame Academy, Worcester, MA

Build "real time" (i.e., days, minutes) into the school year and the school day to examine issues of shared responsibility and faith vision, and to follow the collegial method of decision making, not an authoritarian model, one imposed by someone who knows the truth or what's right for all. Time is a concern, so is the process. Relevance and ownership follow. Ron Gilak, Cleveland Central Catholic High School, Cleveland, OH

A group of our teachers concerned about our mission and spirit in a Catholic school meet regularly to work on doing something about this. The principal supports this. They have formulated a questionnaire and submitted it to the faculty, and have given the results to the faculty. The group continues to meet through the summer, and the meeting dates are made known and are open to all the faculty. Sr. Mildred Speed, Bishop Fenwick High School, Middletown, OH

My school has completed two years of the ongoing North Central Evaluation process. I am on the Catholic Identity Committee. As a committee, we have worked to try and define some of the things that make us a Catholic school. Although our goal for next year has been limited to setting up a process that we hope will help students make connections between the service they do and the responsibility they have as a Catholic to service, the process has heightened our awareness overall as to who we are as a Catholic school. Judith Amberg, Saint Viator High School, Arlington Heights, IL

We need to keep in mind that a school's Catholic identity is about much more than making the Church's sacraments available to students. The doing of the sacraments is meant to celebrate and strengthen an identity that already exists, which is the movement of the Spirit among students, faculty, staff, and administration. Rodney Bluml, Newman Catholic High School, Mason City, IA

I see value in, and have worked on, "institutional" efforts to promote Catholic identity (e.g., mission statements, hiring, a "faith across the curriculum" survey). But I've also seen how such efforts without an interpersonal-invitation approach often succeed only in imposing "external conformity." I've also seen how interpersonal efforts can overcome institutional inertia. I've tried to promote the idea of integrating Gospel values throughout the curriculum in interpersonal ways.

For instance, two other faculty members and I have developed what we call a book club. Actually, we only discuss short articles focused on issues of spirituality. In addition to focusing on the articles, we also do personal and faith sharing. That sharing and those relationships influence our input in discussions at faculty meetings. (Even if two of us are not at a particular meeting, the one who is there has a sense of rendered, supportive spirits.) It has also influenced our work with students: The English teacher and I now work together on a faith-justice research project between our classes. The math teacher is more open to discussions on issues of spirituality in her class, and in her role as cocurriculum adviser. And ideas I've gotten from these two faculty members in our discussions have affected a number of my lesson plans in religion.

Another example of how the mission of the school indirectly gets examined and struggled with comes as an offshoot of my Christian service-social justice courses. Sensitizing students to the countercultural vision of Jesus in these courses has, on several occasions, empowered small groups to take significant actions regarding the Persian Gulf war crisis, AIDS awareness, disability access, and homelessness. All these actions raised the consciousness of many others in the school (and beyond), created considerable discussion and learning throughout the school, and challenged the school to wrestle with what "faithfulness to our mission" means. Kevin LaNave, Cathedral High School, Saint Cloud, MN


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Published October 1, 1995.