Academic journal article Journal of Catholic Education

Perceptions of Catholic Identity: Views of Catholic School Administrators and Teachers

Academic journal article Journal of Catholic Education

Perceptions of Catholic Identity: Views of Catholic School Administrators and Teachers

Article excerpt

When I was growing up in Philadelphia in the 1940s and 1950s, the Catholic identity of the parish elementary school and Catholic high school that I attended was not really given a second thought. Clearly, they were schools with a strong Catholic identity. All the teachers in the parish school and all but one of those who taught me in high school were members of religious congregations. Only Catholic children attended our large parish school and all but a very few students in the high school were Catholic. We learned from the Baltimore Catechism in the elementary school and the daily high school's religion classes were rigorously taught like the other academic subjects. Prayers were said at specific times of the day in the elementary school--at the beginning of the day, before lunch, when we returned from lunch, and at the end of the day--and every class in high school began with a prayer. Liturgical celebrations were frequent and religious symbols abounded. We were challenged to be "soldiers of Christ" and to "spread the good news."

Some years ago I was conducting a meeting on Catholic identity with a strategic planning committee that was charged with making recommendations about the Catholic schools in a diocese. During the meeting, I was asked, "What do you mean by Catholic identity?" I was taken aback a bit, not by the question itself, but rather by the questioner, a prominent pastor of a parish with a Catholic school. I had conducted a number of such meetings in the past, but no one had ever asked me a similar question. Why was the question arising in the context of this meeting? Was it that the pastor really didn't know? Was he testing me? Was he trying to clarify the term so that all at the meeting would be on the same page and could discuss the topic with some understanding? While I never pursued his reasons for asking, I had assumed for years that the concept of Catholic identity was so ingrained in those involved with Catholic schools that I could freely use the term and it would be clear what I meant. The pastor's question prompted me to be more proactive in explaining what I mean, and what the Church means, by the Catholic identity of a Catholic school. So, what does the term Catholic identity encompass?

Review of Literature

Nature of a Catholic School

The examination of the Catholic identity of a Catholic school must begin with an examination of the nature of a Catholic school. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council described the distinguishing characteristic of a Catholic school in Gravissimum Educationis, The Declaration on Christian Education (Paul VI, 1965), as follows:

   The influence of the Church in the field of education is shown in a
   special manner by the Catholic school. No less than other schools
   does the Catholic school pursue cultural goals and the human
   formation of youth. But its proper function is to create for the
   school community a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit
   of freedom and charity, to help youth grow according to the new
   creatures they were made through baptism as they develop their own
   personalities, and finally to order the whole of human culture to
   the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually
   acquire of the world, life and man is illumined by faith. (#8)

Thus, what makes a Catholic school distinctive is its religious dimension, which is found in the educational climate, the personal development of each student, the relationship established between culture and the Gospel, and the illumination of all knowledge with the light of faith (Congregation for Catholic Education, 1988).

In 1972 the bishops of the United States issued a pastoral letter entitled To Teach as Jesus Did (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1972). In it the bishops delineated a fourfold purpose of Catholic schools: message, service, worship, and community. The bishops indicated that the building of, and the living of, community must be explicit goals of Catholic schools (#108) and that community is not just a concept to be taught, but a reality to be lived (#106). …

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