The Late Great Catholic High School

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Gregg Costanzo shares some of his thoughts on Catholic school identity in this thought-provoking essay. Good piece for faculty formation and discussion!

"Jesus is everyone's department!" That is what I found myself exclaiming as I argued with a fellow teacher and friend about why she only wanted the religion teachers in our high school to offer extra credit to students if they donated cookies for the intermission of a local company's production of a passion play. I do not like giving extra points for doing good deeds. I think it defeats the purpose. I encouraged her to ask other departments in the building. She, out of frustration, pointed to the crucifix on my classroom wall and said that was my department. At which point I said, "No, that is everyone's department in this school."

I am a graduate of a Catholic grade school, Catholic high school and Catholic college, and now a religion teacher in a Catholic high school. The optimism I once had for Catholic education has dulled. My disenchantment goes beyond the method and content of catechesis, which is where most of the dialogue seems to be focused. I am more concerned with the loss of our vision--the sense of why we are here and where we are going. Along with this loss is the increasing evidence of apathy among administrators, staff and, most tragically, our students. Administrators have become more focused on capital campaigns and recruitment. The only catholicity that exists in our schools is the faint echoing of an era that ended almost twenty years ago. Many have the mistaken idea that the name "Catholic" is enough on its own to carry on the mission of evangelization that General Directory for Catechesis demands. This shift in thought was probably rooted in the increase in lay employees in our schools. This increase forced two new dilemmas in Catholic education: tuition hikes and increased focus on raising funds to pay for lay salaries, and a decline in priests and nuns who generally took on the issue of catholicity as a priority. Higher tuition also made Catholic schools more elite as it became more difficult for lower income families to meet the cost.

As society becomes more and more secular, secondary Catholic education is in desperate need of renewal. This renewal will not come about by simply reading this article, or buying a book, or revamping a curriculum. The renewal of our high schools can only come about through a shared vision that demands, above all else, the accountability of everyone involved.

Why do Catholic high schools exist? Pope Saint John Paul II's 1990 encyclical, Ex corde ecclesiae, referred to Catholic universities as "born from the heart of the Church" (#1). My initial reaction to this article, which focuses mainly on the catholicity of our college campuses, was that the starting point was wrong. The document was written because of problems that exist within our universities. But in my opinion, the problem did not begin there. The "crisis" on our campuses is inherited from our secondary educational institutions because many are not graduating mature, informed Catholics.

My years at a Catholic college fascinated me. Few of my classmates were knowledgeable of their faith. Those who participated most frequently in class were either self-pronounced atheists or non-intellectual "feelers" who had not grown beyond their childhood spirituality. They were completely unable to comprehend how people could doubt the existence of God, let alone articulate why they believed God did exist. One of atheists insisted that the New Testament claimed Jesus and Mary Magdalene were romantically involved, a point he had confused with a film he flipped passed one day on cable. I remember Sunday masses in the university chapel when more people were in the choir than the pews. One of my most vivid memories is overhearing two university employees bad mouthing the church while I sat waiting for my advisor. There probably is not a better example than this of our schools lacking a shared vision.

One day in chapel I began to wonder how people got to this point. It became increasingly evident to me that my university could not solve this dilemma alone. It was then that I decided that my educational career would be dedicated to secondary religious education. It was in high school that I first experienced the painful reality that the world is not black and white. Suddenly the whole world opened up to me. The possibilities were endless and it was my high school teachers that not only exposed me to them, but also engaged and guided me through them.

My relationship with God was not immune to this discovery. God was no longer a Santa Claus figure who kept a list of who was naughty and nice. God was now an abstraction, a spirit, a mystery. The religion of my childhood was turned upside down and I was suddenly at a crossroads. I entered a period of serious doubt and speculation. I was later able to acknowledge that I was in need of teachers who were willing to listen to my ideas, engage my curiosity, respect my doubts and above all else share their own story of discovery. I was not in need of their answers as much as their support.

As with all stages of life, adolescence is a time of mental, physical, social and spiritual development. In particular, it is during adolescence that a person defines his or her identity, roles, beliefs and future. This can be a time of acceptance or rejection not only of one's familial religious denomination, but also of religion in general. I cannot think of a more vital time to come together as a community and do exactly what my teachers did for me--become part of the journey. And I believe that should be the goal of our Catholic high schools.

To achieve this vision we must free ourselves of certain fallacies that currently dominate the Catholic educational system and acknowledge certain basics. First, this vision is not the sole responsibility of religion teachers, but every employee within the school including coaches, custodial staff and secretaries. Secondly, parents, not teachers, are the primary educators of children. Third, a school should be student-centered, not faculty-centered. Therefore, any apprehensions teachers may have should be offered up for the greater good of our students. Fourthly, the school cannot achieve its vision without the support and involvement of the community at large. This includes grade schools, parishes, businesses, organizations and colleges. Finally, without accountability the vision will perish. Administrations should strongly consider adding a full-time Campus Minister to oversee all of the religious activities in the building. The role of Campus Minister should not be confused with a part time chaplain or Religion Department chairperson.

Every high school's plan should consider the following elements, which I consider necessities. First, introduce the faculty and staff to it in a sensitive manner. Give them the opportunity to share their questions in a comfortable environment. This should be followed up with periodic in-services and day retreats. Many faculty members consider their spirituality to be personal, but that does not make it private. Catholic school employees take on the added role of minister just as Catholic schools take on the added role of being religious communities. Secondly, every department's curriculum should add certain religious themes. For example, sciences can refer to sacramentality throughout the year. Annual seminars should be mandated for the Religion Department. Their purpose should be to keep the faculty updated on current church issues. Instead of working as separate compartments within a building, all departments should stay in dialogue. Health and Religion classes, for example, should be working together on topics like sexuality. Ultimately our goal should move beyond knowledge toward wisdom. Next, as religious communities, our schools need frequent worship experiences that speak to the students. Every generation should have the opportunity to hear the Good News proclaimed in a language it can understand and in words appropriate to its mentality. Otherwise we might as well be speaking Latin all over again. Services should reflect the culture of our students. This is a demand that many parishes cannot meet. I would encourage schools to support a liturgical committee with an annual budget. A school's chapel should get just as much attention as the football field or track.

Fourthly, offer seminars to parents who are interested in learning more about the Catholic faith. If we accept the concept that parents are the primary educators of or students than we should consider this a necessity.

Finally, the catholicity of our schools is not the sole purpose of those who inhabit the building. Not everyone in our schools is Catholic nor does everyone subscribe to Catholic beliefs. This diversity of faith provides the opportunity to practice respect for the religious freedom and wisdom of all people. Schools should be involved in a constant dialogue with local parishes. They should also build a strong relationship with local religious leaders from all faiths. Invite them to attend or participate in various school services.

Secondary Catholic schools must commit themselves to the living tradition of the church by helping faculty and staff recognize their roles as ministers, by providing the opportunity for dynamic and relevant worship and continually recognizing their Catholic identity as a priority for all decision making. For many young people the affirmation of God is becoming more and more difficult. As we continue to ignore or Catholic identity we jeopardize our credibility in the present and reduce our effectiveness in shaping the future. Let us commit ourselves to the challenge because "Jesus is everyone's department!"


Published October 11, 2000.