Catholic Schools: Fostering Catholic Identity in a Pluralistic Community

Catholic Schools: Fostering Catholic Identity in a Pluralistic Community


Here is a link to this weekend’s readings.

shutterstock_519848026As we begin Catholic Schools Week, I’d like to focus on an issue that relates to the larger question of ecumenism we have been exploring. One of the big questions today in Catholic Education is how to foster a Catholic identity when the population of students is often no longer homogenously Catholic. A tribute to the good work of our parish, diocesan, and religious schools is the interest in them from non-Catholics. For some, the Catholic schools are valued for their excellence in academics and their proven track record of preparing students for college and work. For others, the ethics and discipline are attractive, including the focus on the common good and service to those in need. For still others, the holistic approach to education is important, recognizing the student as more than just a mind, but also a person who is body and soul. Whatever the reasons, Catholic schools are not just attended by Catholic students, and so the question of supporting Catholic identity is central.

Another way of posing this same question might be: what elements of Catholic identity are especially suited for 1) fostering a healthy sense of belonging and commitment in those students who are already Catholic, and 2) presenting the Church in its best light and thus being inviting and welcoming to those who are not Catholic? The answers we find to this bi-focal question get us right to the heart of both the New Evangelization and the call of Pope Francis to be “missionary disciples” living a “culture of encounter” (Evangelii Gaudium/The Joy of the Gospel, 119-121, 220).

What do you think nurtures Catholic identity? Did you attend a Catholic school? What aspects of the school drew you closer to the heart of the Church? If you were administering a Catholic school, what would be your highest hopes in regards to Catholic identity for both the Catholic students and the non-Catholics in the school community?

Starting from the negative end, the Catholic School should not hide its identity nor should it promote a chauvinistic kind of pride. In most circumstances, the normal symbols and practices associated with Catholicism are entirely appropriate, for example: crucifixes, statues, and other religious art; prayer and Eucharistic celebrations; retreats and mission trips. What would be wonderful, though, is to recognize the community of students and to find art and prayers that celebrate our unity and diversity. Are there Jewish students in the school? Highlight Pope Saint John Paul II’s visit to the Western Wall and the words of brother- and sisterhood he employed in his close relationship with Jews. Study the documents of the Jewish-Catholic dialogue, beginning with Nostra Aetate.

Pope Francis visiting the Temple Mount and meeting the Muslim clerics and Catholic cardinals. May 26, 2014.

Pope Francis visiting the Temple Mount and meeting the Muslim clerics and Catholic cardinals. May 26, 2014.

Are there Muslim students? Imagine artwork of Saint Francis meeting with the Sultan of Egypt during the Crusades. Envision photographs of John Paul II and Pope Francis each visiting a mosque. Consider how meaningful it would be to all students to study the words of the Catholic-Muslim dialogue, again beginning with Nostra Aetate and leading up to Pope Francis saying, “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sistersand washing the feet of Muslims.

 In many cases, the students may be Protestant Christians of various denominations. The approach is the same. How can we delve into the treasure chest of our own rich, 2000-year tradition to nurture Christian unity rather than proselytizing and drawing hard lines of division? In their document on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio (1964), the bishops at Vatican II said that the first task of the ecumenical movement was to use “every effort to avoid expressions, judgments and actions which are not truthful and fair… and [that] make mutual relations…more difficult” [UR #4]. The Catholic school, it seems to me, is a privileged locus for this pursuit of truth and dismantling of prejudice.

According to Pope Francis, as he joins in the 500th anniversary commemorations of the Protestant Reformation, “We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another” and “We too must look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness, for God alone is our judge.” Such critical reflection and work towards reconciliation on all sides is certainly appropriate to a Catholic education.

With what is happening in the United States right now, the words of the Joint Declaration of Lutherans and Catholics for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation are especially pertinent: “We urge Lutherans and Catholics to work together to welcome the stranger, to come to the aid of those forced to flee because of war and persecution, and to defend the rights of refugees and those who seek asylum.” The Beatitudes remind us in today’s liturgy, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shutterstock_334973072shown mercy.” The reading from Zephaniah assures us that “The LORD keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry…. The LORD loves the just; the LORD protects strangers.” Continuing to promote these Scriptural values is among the prime ways the Catholic School maintains its unique identity in our culture while building bridges with those of other faiths and of no faith.

What is the Catholic identity we want to radiate from our schools? Surely it is deeper than just having crucifixes in every classroom. To reach the hearts of our students, we should meet them in the place they consider important: a place of nonjudgment and acceptance. If we can demonstrate that this is also a rich part of our tradition, rooted in Christ Himself—without needing to resort to relativism or indifferentism—then we will present the Church in its best light and help foster belonging and commitment.


Editorial credit: Roman Yanushevsky / Shutterstock, Inc. for the Pope Francis photo.

  • Joan McKamey
    Posted at 10:20h, 30 January

    VERY insightful, Kevin! Thanks! I’ll be sharing this with my pastor and our school principal.

    • Kevin Dowd
      Posted at 10:31h, 30 January

      Thank you, Joan. I hope it contributes to all our thinking about this important issue. Thanks for passing it along.

  • Marion Collins
    Posted at 17:44h, 01 February

    Thanks, Kevin, you have validated the best we work for within the Catholic Schools.
    I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to attend Catholic Schools-K-12, College, and Post-Grad Certification Program to pursue an enriching and exciting career as a Director of Religious Education. As an added bonus, I was asked to develop a Sunday School Program for our local Episcopal Parish. Without much effort we can all be inviting and inclusive. We can sponsor Talent Shows where all can highlight their culture and beliefs in the form of Music and Art. We have had many students from Spain and China as brothers and sisters.
    As you know, Kevin, the Anti-Bullying Workshops you did for us were Inter-faith, with participants from all the local Churches, and were received with much acclaim, by Pastors, Parents and Students..
    We all know the Beatitudes and need to be reminded of them, particularly in the present turmoil. What struck me were the words of Zephaniah, “the Lord loves the just, the Lord protects strangers”..
    Non-judgement and acceptance are cornerstones of Catholic Schools. Administrators and Faculty work hard to instill these attitudes and are rewarded by so many students who volunteer in the Community. They are eager to participate in outreach programs to the poor, and homeless- no questions asked-just acceptance of the need of our brothers and sisters!
    Thank you again Kevin, for a very thoughtful challenge to keep our students on the right path.
    Thank you Bayard for this wonderful opportunity to evaluate our own path to live the Beatitudes!