Why is Catholic education important, and in what way is it unique? What gives a school a Catholic identity?

Under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II (now St. John Paul II), Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, Archbishop of Vancouver, was secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, and vice president of the Pontifical Work of Priestly Vocations. The third chapter of his book, The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools (Atlanta: Sophia Institute Press, 2006) is entitled, “Five Essential Marks of Catholic Schools.” This article is a reflection on the five characteristics of Catholic education named by Archbishop Miller.

First, a truly Catholic school has as its inspiration a “supernatural vision.” That is, Catholic schools form young people to be good citizens of the world, following Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, to affect the world with the leaven of the Gospel, and to become citizens of the Kingdom of God. In other words, the goal of those receiving a Catholic education is to become saints – to get to heaven. St. John Paul II pointed to the belief that human beings are created in God’s image, and through the Holy Spirit are called to life in Christ. Catholic education emphasizes the dignity of the human person, especially the spiritual dimension. Catholic education is not simply acquiring information that will improve chances for success and comfort. It is rather a lifting up of the human person, and guiding that person on a course that has heaven as its destination.

Second, Catholic education is founded on a “Christian anthropology,” which is a fancy way of naming our self-understanding as human persons and Christians. Much of what we do in Catholic education is founded on how we imagine our God, our world and ourselves. Some authors call the uniquely Catholic worldview the “Catholic imagination.” The Catholic imagination is the perspective that God is present in creation and in human beings, and so human beings and material things can be channels and instruments of God’s grace. For that reason, the Catholic Church places so much importance on the sacraments. God reveals himself in powerful ways in sacramental signs such as bread and wine, which become the Body and Blood of Christ in the celebration of the Mass. As the English poet and Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

The Catholic imagination is a worldview that accepts the idea that the supernatural and the natural are complementary, and that grace builds upon nature. God’s creation is good, and each person has the dignity of a child of God. Jesus, through his incarnation, that is, through his becoming one like us, unites himself with each human person. Catholic education strives to bring about the awareness of the presence of Christ the Teacher and Master.

Third, community and communion are essential to Catholic education. In an overly individualistic society, Catholic education stresses the reality of our interdependence as human beings. “No man is an island,” wrote the poet John Donne. We belong to community on many levels – family, friends, civic community, parish and the larger Church. We need one another, and it is always in the context of community that we truly become ourselves. Catholic schools are communities, which include cooperation between educators and the family, cooperation between educators and the bishops and the larger Church, and a profound interaction between the educators and the students.

The Catholic school is a place that is recognizable as Catholic. There are elements of the environment of Catholic schools, which inspire a feeling of connection to the wider community of faith:
• the presence of the crucifix in the classrooms;
• the expression of daily prayer and frequent liturgy;
• the availability of the Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation; and
• devotions corresponding to the Church year, such as the Advent wreath, the Stations of the Cross during Lent, the praying of the rosary in October and May.

Fourth, the curriculum of Catholic schools is imbued with a spirit of Catholicism. The curriculum aims at developing the growth of the whole person in all dimensions: intellectually, physically, psychologically, morally and religiously. The key to this integral approach is the Gospel. The formation of young people in these dimensions is one that focuses on Jesus Christ, who became one like us out of love, died to set us free, and rose to give us eternal life, true and authentic life, which begins in the here and now, and comes to fulfillment in the life to come.

In the midst of a society which tends to see everything in terms of relativism, Catholic education seeks to inspire a thirst for wisdom and a desire for truth. In this light, Catholic school students develop a moral compass, learning to discern that which is truly of value in life. Their educators give them the tools to make good decisions, which will benefit themselves and others in this world, with an eye fixed on the world to come. The outcome is that Catholic school students do not simply accept culture as it is, nor do they reject it out of hand. Rather, Catholic education inspires them to transform culture with faith-filled attitudes and actions.

Fifth, Catholic education is sustained by Gospel values. The role of teachers and administrators is to participate in the Church’s mission of evangelization. As persons of faith, convinced of the innate dignity of the students they teach, teachers inspire their students to be the best they can be, intellectually and spiritually, by the grace of God.

A supernatural orientation, a unique Catholic perspective, a strong communal dimension, a curriculum steeped in Catholic thought, a path of learning sustained by Gospel values; these things add up to a powerful vision. Imagine our young people really believing in God and in themselves. Imagine them reaching for the stars in their passion for the truth. Imagine them developing a profound sense of their own dignity and the dignity of others, and using their moral compass to make the right decisions in life. Imagine them shaping, changing and transforming the world with their well-honed intellectual skills and God-given spiritual insights. These are dreams that become reality in Catholic education.