“This unique Catholic identity makes our Catholic elementary and secondary schools ‘schools for the human person’ and allows them to fill a critical role in the future life of our Church, our country and our world” (The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, 1997. Cited by Ozar and Weitzel-O’Neill).
When I graduated from Loyola last May, I gave a presentation to my fellow Catholic Studies minors on what it meant to me to take Catholic Studies and to live it. I talked about my experience as a student teacher at St. Ignatius College Prep and how I tried to bring the interdisciplinary nature of Catholic Studies into the math classroom. After graduation, I began looking for teaching positions and I found myself drawn to Catholic schools more than their public counterparts. This was partly because of my lifelong experience of Catholic education (I have been educated exclusively in Catholic schools) and because of my experiences as a student teacher at St. Ignatius College Prep. I ended up accepting a position in the math department at St. Edward Central Catholic High School teaching Algebra I, Algebra II, and a senior survey course.
One of the first things that I and the other new teachers at the school were informed about during our orientation was about two things: the mission of the school and Catholic identity. The Rockford Diocese’s Central Catholic High School system is unique in the fact that it guarantees a Catholic education at a relatively low cost to any family that wishes it for their children. We were also told of how our Catholic identity was paramount at our school.
But why? Why is it important for that education to be Catholic? Our principal characterized it as being the most important reason for us existing–not as an alternative to the public school, not as an academically challenging private school, nor even as a vaguely Christian, faith-based school–but as a Catholic school.
Because of the need to uphold our “Catholic identity,” the time for teacher observations can cause some anxiety. Teachers often ask themselves, “Am I being Catholic enough?” or “How can I incorporate Catholic truths into my lessons?”
The answer came to me simply. The Jesuit idea of cura personalis, which is illustrated by the quote above, helps us to understand what it truly means to have a Catholic identity. In Catholic education, we seek to educate the whole person. This is what I was getting at in my talk at the end of the year and I think this is what the quote above is getting at.
We foster Catholic identity by seeking to educate our students so that they leave our classes as good citizens of the world, not just as (hopefully) highly accomplished students in math, science, history, English, or the arts. Of course, I should teach my students about the different mathematical concepts that are part of the course they are enrolled in. However, that should not be all that I teach. In all likelihood, most of my students will never need to find the x-intercept of a parabola using the quadratic formula or state the domain and range of a trigonometric function. However, they will encounter the poor and the homeless, so I should teach them to look at how poverty affects people and for ways to serve them in their need. While they may outgrow my very uncomfortable desks and no longer need me to explain the proper technique to solve equations, they will never outgrow their faith, so I should teach them to pray always. While they may no longer be my students after they leave my class, they will always be Catholics, called to bring Jesus to the world, so I should teach them to preach the Gospel of Christ always, using words if necessary.
For at the end of the school year, their educational careers, and at the end of their lives, the world will know that our students are Catholic and that we as their teachers fostered a Catholic identity in them by the people they served not by the doctrines they know. The world will know them not by the prayers they recited, but how they spoke with honesty, sincerity, and compassion to all. And not because they called themselves Catholic, but because it was plain to see that they walked humbly with God and brought Him to all that they met each and every day.