What Catholic Schools are Called to Be

Remarks by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila

Catholic School Symposium
October 5 & 6, 2015
Radisson Hotel

We have arrived at a crossroads for Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Denver, and I am glad to be standing here with you at this important time. As we said in the video, “We have to change the game. And now is the time to do it.”

Father Dollins has given us an overview of why we are gathered here. I am going to speak about what Catholic Schools can be and what Catholic Schools are called to be.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, the goal of Catholic education is to help parents raise saints. Now, I know that it may feel like that’s an impossible goal while you battle teenagers who are testing the limits of your will, or trying to find the strength to just get up after a sleepless night, but remember, “With God, all things are possible” (Luke 1:16).

Last year I read the book Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry Weddell, and since then I have focused on promoting authentic discipleship throughout the archdiocese.

This idea of being an authentic, intentional disciple who is ready to leave everything to follow Jesus Christ is at the heart of my vision for the archdiocese. For me it is not something new. When I was in college I read the book “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a Lutheran minister in Germany prior to WWII who was martyred by the Nazis. His book deeply touched my life. From it I realized that to follow Jesus Christ, meant giving my entire life to Jesus no matter what state of life I was called to. Jesus truly meant the words “Come, follow me” and, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it (Lk 9:23-24).” To be an authentic disciple means encountering Jesus, falling in love with him and staying in love with him.

This vision was strengthened in 1979 by the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, where he stated, “…the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ: only He can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity.”

Pope Francis has invited us into this encounter, just as Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict did before him. At the beginning of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis states:

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.” The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. – EG, 3.

If we are going to be a vibrant, living, thriving, welcoming and forgiving community, then the Church of northern Colorado needs to be filled with true disciples. In the coming months, you will hear more about how this will impact the various entities that make up the archdiocese.

Today, I am going to talk about how forming disciples must be at the center of all that we do in Catholic schools. It is the mission of Catholic schools!

Any good strategy needs to account for the obstacles that must be overcome to reach the desired goal, and we need to acknowledge that we are faced with some cultural and moral challenges in orienting our schools to becoming discipleship-centered.

The most serious challenge is the breakdown of the family. This is not new. When I was pastor of Guardian Angels from 1982-1987 one of the greatest challenges we faced in the school were families that were breaking apart, dysfunctional, single parents trying to make it, and grandparents raising their grandchildren.

The family was created by God to be a place of life and love that serves as the first school of the virtues. It’s meant to be a place where holiness is displayed by parents and imitated by children. The family is meant to be the first place where children learn about God the Father, who is reflected to them by their parents and the community that surrounds them. All of you know from your work, and perhaps your own families, that leading a family where the love of God animates its life is increasingly difficult to do. And it’s equally difficult to find other families who are successfully doing that as well.

The reasons for this are many, and are best left for another talk, but I would like to briefly mention two factors.

 

Cultural Challenges

The first is that many parents are much more formed by the world than they are by the Gospel. All too often, they have not had a life-changing, personal encounter with Jesus Christ. This can be the case for people who have been raised in the Church, too. They like the cultural aspects of Catholicism but they have not become disciples. When it comes time to choose a school for their children, these parents often prioritize the intellectual rigor of Catholic schools over finding a school that helps them form their children into authentic, joyful disciples.

The second factor is that the institution of the family is being fragmented by distance, divorce, the influence of relativism in their decision-making, and a lack of commitment by couples to marriage. This has wreaked havoc on the support networks for families and disrupted the traditional system of child-rearing. We see this firsthand in our families, in our schools, at the counseling clinics run by Regina Caeli, and in our parishes. This has resulted in children being raised without a stable home environment, without role models of motherhood and fatherhood, and consequently, without any idea of what it means to be a disciple.

These are formidable challenges which we must face squarely, while trusting in God’s help, and asking how he wants us to respond. For we know that, “with God all things are possible.”

 

Discipleship and the Gospels

When children do not have a father or mother present in their life, they very often struggle with their identity. Who am I? Where do I belong? How am I supposed to act? and What is my purpose in life? are all questions that are even more difficult to answer for them than they are for children who come from intact families.

Our culture as a whole is also losing its common sense of identity as it casts faith aside in favor of secularism. The shared moral commitments of previous generations are no longer agreed upon, and the moral fabric of our society is becoming threadbare. Ever since the French Revolution, when a woman representing the “Goddess of Reason” was placed on the high altar in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Western society has believed the lie that technology and science can fix the problems that plague us. But the problem is not with our tools, and it never has been. The problem is with our hearts.

Pope Francis lamented in his homily yesterday which opened the Synod on the Family that those societies which are considered the most advanced have the highest percentage of abortion, divorce and other dysfunctions. All of these problems are rooted in a move away from God.

The solution to this problem is given to us in the Scriptures, and it involves more than hanging the right pictures in our hallways, having the students attend Mass, and studying the right things. What we need was present in what one could call the first two Catholic schools: the Holy Family and Jesus’ formation of the 12 Apostles.

What our Catholic schools need is to become places that form authentic disciples: young men and women who are willing to drop everything to follow Christ wherever he is calling them, whether that’s to become a doctor, teacher, missionary, engineer, scientist, priest or a religious.

For that to happen, we need parents, teachers and faculty who are witnesses, who can convincingly share how Jesus Christ has changed their life through the sacraments, through moments of grace and conversion, and sharing their insights about how the subjects that are being studied related to the truths of the faith. This has to begin in our homes, and continue in our classrooms.

And when Jesus embarked on his public ministry he invited 12 men to follow him. Much like a father or mother teaches their children to tell the truth, be selfless, or be polite, Jesus spent significant amounts of time imparting his way of life to the Apostles. Ultimately, he revealed each of their life stories to them and showed them how they fit into God’s plan. Transformed hearts can be seen in the Apostles; their hearts became more receptive to his mercy, love and teaching and were transformed. They left behind their sinful lives and became a new creation.

We are told in the story of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus how they did not recognize Jesus, but then, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” And after the breaking of the bread, he vanished from their sight, the disciples said, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?’ (Luke 24:27, 32).

How I pray each day that the heart of every disciple may burn like these disciples’ did!

The difference between instruction and discipleship is that the former imparts knowledge but the latter changes our identity; it gives us a different worldview and forms our character. In an August 2015 article for Our Sunday Visitor, the head of the University of Notre Dame’s Liturgy Center Timothy P. O’Malley stated, “Catholic identity, in the end, is not a free-floating term, reducible to a series of universal principles. Rather, it is the result of immersing oneself into a series of narratives and practices found within the Church that constitute a way of life.”

To understand the roots of discipleship, we need to look at the relationship between Jewish rabbis and their disciples. The book Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith puts it in these terms:

To follow a rabbi meant something other than sitting in a classroom and absorbing his lectures. Rather, it involved a literal kind of following, in which disciples often traveled with, lived with, and imitated their rabbis, learning not only from what they said but from what they did – from their reactions to everyday life as well as from the manner in which they lived (p. 51).

The goal, in other words, wasn’t just academic formation but personal transformation.

To that end, the disciple would accompany the rabbi on all of his daily rounds: going to court, helping the poor, burying the dead, redeeming slaves, and so on. The disciple sought to be a humble and caring companion, doing personal acts of service and helping the teacher in all things (Ibid).

With an awareness of this “discipling” dimension, some of Jesus’ actions that we have heard about so many times take on a new meaning. Think, for example, of when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, or when he told Peter to put his boat out “into the deep,” after he had fished all night and caught nothing. The multiplication of the loaves and the fish, or Jesus sending out the Apostles to cast out demons and proclaim the Good News also come to mind as times when the Apostles were called to imitate Christ, like a good disciple imitates his master.

This concept of imitation is so embedded in the rabbi-disciple relationship that according to a story told in the book Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, a man who was visiting Jerusalem said he once noticed “a bent-over rabbi, shuffling through the streets. Behind the rabbi walked several men, presumably his disciples. Remarkably, each man was also walking bent over”(p. 63).

You might say that this seems too difficult or that we aren’t equipped for this. You might say, “We don’t have enough parents who are model Catholics,” or “We can hardly manage to find qualified teachers in each subject area, let alone teachers and principals that can serve as spiritual rabbis.” But Jesus sees things differently…

In the Jewish system of education young boys would study the Torah until their bar mitzvah and then ask different rabbis if they could become their disciples. Those who didn’t get accepted as disciples would go into practicing a trade like fishing, carpentry, or some other blue-collar job. Think about this: every one of the 12 Apostles was practicing a trade when Jesus called them, and Jesus himself was a carpenter. That means that they had failed to be accepted as a disciple of one of the rabbis.

It’s important for each of you to realize that no matter where you are – although not on your terms but his – Jesus can provide you the grace you need to become a master, a rabbi who raises-up disciples. He will never impose himself on you, but rather, invites you to open your heart and receive him.

If we want to help see our Catholic school system succeed in an increasingly hostile secular environment, then we need to ensure that this model of discipleship guides our families, parishes and schools.
“A dead thing can go with the stream,” G.K. Chesterton said, “but only a living thing can go against it” (The Everlasting Man).

In Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell offers what she calls “five thresholds” or stages that I believe should serve as a guide for the different moments and ways that our families and our Catholic schools should seek to form disciples. If we guide students through these stages, then we will be able to help them truly encounter Jesus Christ. We will help them become intentional disciples who are alive in Christ and can swim against the stream of the secular culture without being swept away.

Those 5 Thresholds, which are based on research done by missionaries, are:

  1. Initial trust: Someone makes a positive association with Jesus, the Church, or a Christian believer.
  2. Spiritual curiosity: A person is intrigued by or desiring to know more about Jesus, his life, his teachings or some aspect of the Christian faith.
  3. Spiritual openness: A person acknowledges to himself or herself and to God that he or she is open to the possibility of personal and spiritual change.
  4. Spiritual seeking: The person moves from being essentially passive to actively seeking to know the God who is calling him or her.
  5. Intentional discipleship: This is the decision to ‘drop one’s nets.’ To make a conscious commitment to follow Jesus in the midst of his Church as an obedient disciple and to reorder one’s life accordingly.

In addition to being aware of these moments for deeper conversion and encounter, we need to ensure that the educational environment, the curriculum and the witness of our faculty promote a Catholic ethos.

The word ethos is a word that we have borrowed from Greek. It means “the characteristic spirit of a culture as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations.”

If our Catholic schools – from Kindergarten to 12th Grade – have a Catholic ethos, then our beliefs and aspirations will pervade everything. That means that the sacraments, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist, are an indispensable and frequent part of school life. It also means that the faith informs everything from the art we choose to hang in the halls, to the way students and faculty are expected to behave and dress, to the way the faith is woven into each of the subjects taught.

Jacques Maritain, the famous French philosopher and Catholic convert, described this integration of faith, academics and life in a way that I find helpful for understanding how this can – and in some places already does – work in our schools.

Has the notion of Christian inspiration or the idea of Christian education the slightest significance when it comes to the teaching of mathematics, astronomy, or engineering? The answer, I think, is that there are of course no Christian mathematics or Christian astronomy or engineering; but if the teacher has Christian wisdom, and if his teaching overflows from a soul dedicated to contemplation, the mode or manner in which his teaching is given—in other words, the mode or manner in which his own soul and mind perform a living and illuminating action on the soul and mind of another human being—will convey to the student and awaken in him something beyond mathematics, astronomy, or engineering: first, a sense of the proper place of these disciplines in the universe of knowledge and human thought; second, an unspoken intimation of the immortal value of truth, and of those rational laws and harmony which are at play in things and who primary roots are in the divine intellect. – Maritain, Education at the Crossroads.

In other words, if parents, teachers, principals, and coaches are themselves disciples, then a Catholic ethos will naturally take root in our schools. This transformation will require formation for our faculty and staff that leads them onto the path of discipleship. And my hope is that everyone here can contribute ideas during the discussion period about ways to do that.

As the Archbishop of Denver, I want to be able to ensure that all the Catholic schools in this archdiocese are able to swim against the stream. For that reason, today I am publicly announcing that a visitation of the 4 religious order and 2 archdiocesan high schools will be taking place this fall. Many of you are aware of this already. The goal of this visitation is to help the high schools ensure that the fullness of the Gospel and our Catholic faith is convincingly taught and that every student is prepared to faithfully engage the world.

In addition to the visitation and new formation projects, the Office of Catholic Schools will also focus on refining our hiring process and look at ways to increase the compensation we offer to our teachers.

I want you to know that both the Office of Catholic Schools and I realize that the status quo is a path that will only lead to increased frustration, an unbalanced situation among our schools and eventual failure. And I want you to know that we are committed to making certain that does not happen.

In the light of forming authentic disciples being the mission of Catholic schools, we need to examine two other areas: Filling Desks and Fundraising Dollars.

I will leave the detailed discussion of these two topics to the upcoming speakers, but I want to briefly offer some thoughts about them.

The current enrollment trend has us losing about 3% of our students every year. At that rate, we will have to close schools, and we are fortunate that we haven’t had to do that more often. The good news is that there are several strategies that Fr. Corpora and Kevin Kijewski will talk about that we can implement to improve that situation.

Out of the three areas we will cover this during this symposium, the most difficult to solve is how to finance Catholic Schools, and do so well into the future. In my experience of Catholics schools in the 50s and early 60s, the 20 sisters who taught in the first Catholic school I went to received a stipend of less than $50 each month, tuition was $6 a month, and there were more than 50 children in each classroom. And they taught us! Those days are long over.

Last year I went to a conference for Bishops provided by the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program at the University of Notre Dame. What I discovered is that there is no single model for fundraising for our Catholic Schools. Each diocese has its own model: some have a regional model, some have a cathedraticum tax on each parish that goes as high as 27% of their collection for education, which is over and above the 10-12% for other needs in the dioceses, some places use a tithing model and some have a mix of solutions.

For so many parents, finances are a key factor in deciding to send their kids to public school or to our schools. I am very proud of the generosity that Catholics across northern Colorado have shown to scholarship organizations like Seeds of Hope, the Catholic Foundation, ACE Scholarships, and others. But the reality is that even with the support families receive in financial aid, our funding model for Catholic schools is not sustainable.

We are here over these two days to discuss these realities and to set our Catholic school system on the path to a vibrant, faith-filled future. I am confident that we have the right people in this room, the right staff in the Office of Catholic Schools, and most of all, I am confident that God cannot be outdone in generosity. If we allow Jesus to enter into and transform our hearts and minds and listen to the Holy Spirit, we can find solutions that will help our Catholic schools flourish and form saints! Thank you!