What is the role of Catholicism in the life of the Catholic school student? What should it do?
These questions recently arose as I spoke with a colleague about our efforts to endear the Catholic faith to resistant minds.
Thousands of pages of ecclesial documents address these questions, and most of these documents elaborate upon this basic answer: the mission of the Catholic school is to form believing Catholic Christians; in short, to create disciples.
As I’ve written before in America, those principles are clear in theory and yet, in practice, contain subsidiary concerns. What counts as a believing Catholic Christian? How do we know, as Catholic educators, whether we have fulfilled our mission? Does success require our students to assent to every single teaching of the Catholic Church, perhaps as measured by the Catechism, all 2,865 paragraphs? A critical mass of those paragraphs? (Would anybody meet that criteria?) Do we distinguish between teachings, deeming some more important than others?
How, in other words, do we know?
I ask these questions to highlight the difficulty of drawing sharp lines. There is no formula for discipleship, no calculation that leads to St. Peter or St. Augustine, Fr. Merton or Fr. Martin. Forming disciples requires patience and time, all the more so when we remember that faith is not a school’s to give. “Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man,” notes the Catechism (para. 162). “Believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit” (para. 154).
This is not to say that lesson plans and curricula are not important. Books matter. Ideas matter. St. Augustine, for example, not to mention Merton and many others, benefited immensely from their intellectual excursions, from the kinds of reading and contemplating for which classrooms are well suited. Catholic education, which includes its retreat and immersion programs, provides a vital intellectual and emotional foundation; it can purify misconceptions and turn students to soul-shaping inquiries.
This is the tension. Confronted with a mentality shaped by grade point averages and test scores, we must teach that taking up one’s cross does not culminate in easily measurable criteria, like an AP US History exam or the SAT. It is, rather, a lifelong project, always incalculable, always incomplete, forever open to the magis of St. Ignatius and the “yes” of Mary.