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: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.