Catholic School Teachers: Missionaries of Evangelization
TUESDAY, JANUARY 31, 2023
Etched in stone over the majestic double doors of St. Stephen of Hungary School in Manhattan are the words Venite Adoremus Dominum – “Come Let us Adore the Lord.”
At first glance, these words can seem misplaced. Isn’t school about letters and numbers, rocks and maps, paintings and songs? Doesn’t such an exhortation fit over the doors to a church, not to a school?
Yes, these words are in the right place. In fact, they belong over the doors to a Catholic school, for all its teaching, all its resources, and all its personnel exist to serve a singular goal: to lead students to Heaven, where they will adore the Lord for all eternity.
I have been in and around Catholic schools, from kindergarten to the graduate level, for four decades as a student, teacher, and parent. I have visited Catholic schools that are run-of-the-mill average, that are struggling to survive, that are on fire with mission-driven purpose. Many ingredients contribute to making a successful school, but in my experience, there is one feature that ignites a dynamic, faithful, and attractive school: an army of teachers devoted to teaching as a way to lead their students to adore the Lord.
During this Catholic Schools Week, we would do well to focus this year on the teachers, the ones who make – or break – the experience for children in our Catholic schools. Of course, this includes children’s religious experience. In this regard, there’s a calculus that anyone can see: if teachers are not strong in their faith, there is no way that the faith will be passed on to the children.
A baffling and frustrating phenomenon exists in diocesan schools – it was the case when I was a student, and it is the case now for my K-8 age children: too many schools hire teachers to teach either the primary grades or specific subjects, and then throw the religion book at them and add, “You have to teach your class religion too. We don’t know if you even go to church. But it’s your job. Read the book with your class and you will be fine.”
This would never happen in the opposite direction: a principal would not hire someone to teach religion and then say, “Oh, yeah, you have to teach a full geometry course too.” But somehow, religion – what should be the crown jewel of the Catholic school curriculum – is treated as an afterthought by many schools.
It’s very difficult to fill Catholic schools on all levels and in all subjects with academically qualified and religiously faithful teachers. But the calculus changes when administrators shift their approach from filling holes to hiring for mission. A vibrant mission attracts aspiring workers to it. Since, in today’s post-Christian world, it is missionaries of evangelization that must be found to keep the faith alive, schools ought to advertise where missionaries congregate: devout parishes, perpetual adoration chapels, certain apostolates and institutes, and universities known for zealously living the faith.
In other words, Catholic schools alive with genuine faith in Christ become like the Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come.
And all over the country, such schools are being built – home-schooling co-ops, classical schools, schools that offer an integrated program in the traditional liberal arts and the virtues. And parents do come, often from great distances to give their children an education that puts faith at the very center of every day, every course, and every activity. These schools are special not simply because of their curriculum – even the best curriculum is inert in the hands of faithless teachers. Rather these schools thrive because of the faithful teachers who passionately bring the curriculum to life for their students.
With the vast majority of American Catholics unchurched and uninterested in the faith, Catholic schools are the best – and, perhaps, the last – hope for making the new evangelization of St. John Paul II a reality. A school full of teachers in love with the Lord can transform a town or even a city. Think of the fervor of the twelve apostles, of the original companies of Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits. These men transformed cities under inspired leaders who sent their groups into mission. Teachers await those leaders – principals, pastors, and bishops – to call them together, to present a compelling vision, and to send them out for the harvest.
I would like to issue a clarion call to all devout Catholics: students who are about to graduate from college, mothers whose children are leaving the nest, businessmen and women financially well off, and younger retirees: Would you prayerfully consider spending a few years as a teacher in a Catholic school? The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Perhaps you are the laborers the Lord wishes to send, the ones for whom the faithful have been praying for so long.
Teaching is not easy work, and it is even harder after decades of working in other fields. The warning of French philosopher Étienne Gilson rings truest in education: “Piety is no substitute for technique.” Teachers must know their subjects, and they must find effective ways to communicate this knowledge. But if they can do so, and if they believe devoutly, the impact they can have on the faith of young people can move mountains.
As we celebrate our Catholic schools this week, let us gather and increase the number of Catholic school teachers. For they are the missionaries that make Catholic schools worth celebrating. They are the shepherds leading their young sheep to adore the Lord.
*Image: La leçon de catéchisme by Louis-Emile Adan, late 19th—early 20th century [private collection]
You may also enjoy:
Daniel Guernsey’s The Remedy for “Canceling” and Division: Catholic Education
Randall Smith’s Catholic Education Matters
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