Catholic education is More Than You Realize

Catholic school teachers and staff reminded of their invaluable roles at annual formation day

Aaron Lambert

This year’s annual formation day for teachers looked a little different than years past. You might even say it was More Than You Realize.

All archdiocesan Catholic school employees gathered at the Doubletree Hotel in Stapleton March 8 for a day of training and catechesis hosted by the Archdiocese of Denver’s Office of Catholic Schools. A series of talks were given by several speakers who all showed that history, art, beauty, science, faith, reason, and ultimately Catholic schools are all More Than You Realize.

Superintendent Elias Moo began his address to the teachers by asking what the fundamental difference between Catholic and public schools is. He used two examples to illustrate his point: a science classroom examining red blood cells under a microscope and a math class learning about the Fibonacci numbers and the elusive Golden ratio.

“In Catholic schools, students have an opportunity to be led out to see in those cells and chromosomes the genius behind their creation, cells that bear the imprint of a loving God who created all things,” Moo said. “In our Catholic schools, students have an opportunity to be led out to see in these mathematical patterns the order and logic God used to create the universe, a God who uses beautiful patterns and sequences to reveal through nature his greatness.

“Through the use of their reason,” Moo continued, Catholic school students will “come to know and discover the mind of God and thus come to love him because in all things they see, they will see the imprint and mark of he who made it all for them.”

Academic success for students at Catholic schools is of the utmost importance, Moo said, and Catholic schools have a great track record. In addition to lower dropout rates than public and other private schools, Catholic schools generally outperform other schools when it comes to high test scores, and a recent study showed that Catholic schools foster better self-discipline among their students.

However, academic success cannot be the only thing that sets Catholic schools apart from other schools, Moo said. An education rooted in the principles of the Gospel demands more from its teachers and everybody else involved because such an education is not solely concerned with the academic.

“We don’t just want academic or career success for our students,” Moo said. “We want more for them because they deserve more.”

In essence, Moo said, Catholic schools need to support parents in raising their children in the faith and forming the whole person.

“This is why our Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Denver exist,” Moo explained. “To support parents in forming their children as faithful and virtuous disciples of Jesus Christ who are fully alive and serve the common good. This is our charter and it doesn’t come from a model or educational fad or trend, but from the heart of the Church.”

Frassati Catholic Academy sixth grader John Siurek was invited to speak at the conference about how teachers can inspire students to be the best they can be.

“We need teachers to push us to the heights that we can go,” Siurek said. “Let us do more than just learn! Inspire us with subjects that we have never learned before.”

He implored the teachers to be constant sources of inspiration and encouragement for students: “Help us to believe in ourselves and the things that we are capable of doing! Your words of encouragement make us feel like we can do anything, and they help us to strive to live up to what you believe about us.”

Most importantly, however, he told them to help their students to become saints.

“Help us to be like Jesus. Show us how to love him and serve him,” he said. “Pray with us, sing with us, correct us when we need it, and let us know when we are being good examples…all of our Catholic schools should help us kids to be saints!”

All those in attendance agreed, if their standing ovation was anything to go by.

“I love that we are here to build the kingdom of heaven,” said Linda Capaldo-Smith, Preschool Director and Pre-Kindergarten teacher at Christ the King Catholic School in Denver. She said that after the conference, she is even more excited to teach the little ones that God “is in every part of our lives. God is there and has made everything for us.”

Lauren Powell, a kindergarten teacher at Frassati Catholic Academy, said that the day served as a fervent reminder that her job as a Catholic school teacher is to help form the whole person of her students.

“It reenergizes me in terms of teaching their soul as well as their mind,” she said. “[I’m] wanting to go back and make sure my students know how much God loves them. I want to tell them that more, every day, and hope that they can see that they’re more than they realize.”

COMING UP: Historical clarity and today’s Catholic contentions

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One of the curiosities of the 21st-century Catholic debate is that many Catholic traditionalists (especially integralists) and a high percentage of Catholic progressives make the same mistake in analyzing the cause of today’s contentions within the Church — or to vary the old fallacy taught in Logic 101, they think in terms of post Concilium ergo propter Concilium [everything that’s happened after the Council has happened because of the Council]. And inside that fallacy is a common misreading of modern Catholic history. The traditionalists insist that everything was fine before the Council (which many of them therefore regard as a terrible mistake); the progressives agree that the pre-Vatican II Church was a stable institution but deplore that stability as rigidity and desiccation.

But that’s not the way things were pre-Vatican II, as I explain at some length and with some engaging stories in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books). And no one knew the truth about pre-Vatican II Catholicism better than the man who was elected pope during the Council and guided Vatican II through its last three sessions, St. Paul VI.

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII, thought to be an elderly placeholder, stunned both the Church and the world by announcing his intention to summon the 21st ecumenical council. That night, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (who would be known as Paul VI four and a half years later), called an old friend. An experienced churchman who had long served Pius XII as chief of staff, Montini saw storm clouds on the horizon: “This holy old boy,” he said of John XXIII, “doesn’t know what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”

That shrewd observation turned out to be spot on –– and not simply because of the Council, but because of the bees and hornets that had been buzzing around the ecclesiastical nest for well over 100 years.

Contrary to both traditionalist and progressive misconceptions, Catholicism was not a placid institution, free of controversy and contention, prior to Vatican II. As I show in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, there was considerable intellectual ferment in the Church during the mid-19th century, involving great figures like the recently-canonized John Henry Newman, the German bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (grandfather of modern Catholic social thought), and the Italian polymath Antonio Rosmini (praised by John Paul II in the 1999 encyclical, Faith and Reason, and beatified under Benedict XVI). That ferment accelerated during the 25 year pontificate of Leo XIII, who launched what I dub the “Leonine Revolution,” challenging the Church to engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic tools in order to convert the modern world and lay a firmer foundation for its aspirations.

American Catholicism, heavily focused on institution-building, was largely unaware of the sharp-edged controversies (and ecclesiastical elbow-throwing) that followed Leo XIII’s death in 1903. Those controversies, plus the civilization-shattering experience of two world wars in Europe, plus a rapid secularization process in Old Europe that began in the 19th century, set the stage for John XXIII’s epic opening address to Vatican II. There, the Pope explained what he envisioned Vatican II doing: gathering up the energies let loose by the Leonine Revolution and focusing them through the prism of an ecumenical council, which he hoped would be a Pentecostal experience energizing the Church with new evangelical zeal.

John XXIII understood that the Gospel proposal could only be made by speaking to the modern world in a vocabulary the modern world could hear. Finding the appropriate grammar and vocabulary for contemporary evangelization didn’t mean emptying Catholicism of its content or challenge, however. As the Pope insisted, the perennial truths of the faith were to be expressed with the “same meaning” and the “same judgment.” Vatican II, in other words, was to foster the development of doctrine, not the deconstruction of doctrine. And the point of that doctrinal development was to equip the Church for mission and evangelization, for the modern world would be converted by truth, not ambiguity or confusion.

Over the past six and a half years, it’s become abundantly clear that more than a few Catholics, some quite prominently placed, still don’t get this history. Nor do the more vociferous elements in the Catholic blogosphere. Which is why I hope The Irony of Modern Catholic History helps facilitate a more thoughtful debate on the Catholic present and future, through a better understanding of the Catholic past.