by Most Rev. Thomas A. Daly
The seasonal return to the sound of school bells ringing signals that another academic year is underway. This is a sound that stirs any number of feelings – joy, excitement, even a small bit of dread. But it’s the undeniable herald calling Catholic educators back to their mission to form the students that God has providentially placed in their care in the wisdom and virtue that is their inheritance. As a former Catholic high school president, this mission remains of foremost importance to me, and as a bishop, that importance has only grown.
In any gathering of bishops, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to our Catholic schools. We know that our schools are essential to the exercise of our own episcopal ministry: to proclaim salvation in Jesus Christ and to invite souls to embrace this. More than a century ago, our predecessors envisioned a Catholic school at every parish; while this dream was not fully realized, the first half of the 20th century saw a boom in the construction of Catholic schools.
It’s worth spending a bit of time contemplating why the Church has placed such a priority on Catholic schools. Certainly, the passing on of the faith is of primary concern, along with the development of intellectual capacities. Recent decades and the growth of disaffiliation might cast some doubt on how successfully we have done this. In another sense, the crisis of faith may be an opportunity for us to peel back layers of attempted reform and consider the fundamental question: what is Catholic education?
Good bishops assess threats to the flock, such as the rise of gender ideology and the encroachment of secularism, which threaten the souls of our children.
At its heart, Catholic education should be a process of integral formation that transmits what Pope St. John Paul II called a “convincing and coherent vision of life in the conviction that the truths contained in that vision liberate students in the most profound meaning of human freedom.” The school’s task includes evangelization and catechesis, but before it can accomplish these, it must form the hearts and minds of its students with a Catholic imagination that allows the great catechetical truths to be welcomed and to take root.
It’s also worth noting that this mission has a priority for the marginalized and the “least of these.” Not all children are born into families that are fully capable of educating and forming them; but as children of God, they are entitled to it, and the Church embraces them and welcomes them into this place of formation, animated by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, what role has a bishop to play in all of this? Not surprisingly, our role is quite critical. We are tasked with ensuring that Catholic schools are faithful and effective places of formation. Last year, the then-Congregation on Catholic Education issued an instruction on the nature of Catholic identity, The Identity of a Catholic School for a Culture of Dialogue. The document was something of a “preemptive strike” in encouraging resolutions of disputes surrounding schools, and it worked to achieve this by reiterating the nature of schools and the responsibilities of those overseeing them.
There are three images of bishops that speak to our role in ensuring the mission of our Catholic schools. They are: father, shepherd, and teacher.
The Bishop as Father
In the Identity of a Catholic School document, the rights, responsibilities, and authority of the local bishop are articulated well, citing canon law and tradition. The Holy See recognizes the paternal nature of the office of bishop and says: “The Bishop is the father and pastor of the particular Church in its entirety. It is his task to discern and respect individual charisms, and to promote and coordinate them” .
The two words that jump out here are two important aspects of fatherhood: to discern and to respect. Good fathers exercise spiritual leadership by discerning the will of God in their families; so too bishops with regard to their dioceses, which includes the Catholic schools and the charisms associated with them. The natural fruit of the discernment of God’s will is respect. This competence to organize the various charisms in the Church translates, among other things, into certain specific actions.
Of course, the work of a father is never just found in thought and prayer. In fact, thoughtful prayer should be reflected in the action of the bishop: taking the time to get to know his schools and those who teach and lead there and supporting the formation of Catholic school teachers, who hold a munus in the Church, by providing leadership and resources.
The Bishop as Shepherd
The pastoral work of a bishop is manifested in the ongoing responsibility to watch over the schools in his care in the same way that a shepherd is vigilant in tending the flock. Good bishops assess threats to the flock, such as the rise of gender ideology and the encroachment of secularism, which threaten the souls of our children. When a threat is detected, a bishop must act forthrightly. He will often be condemned for this by a world that values tolerance over truth, but it remains his sacred responsibility.
As a young priest teaching high school, I had a Wire Fox Terrier named Rascal. Whenever my nieces and nephews would visit, they always played on the football field. Rascal would criss-cross the field, never getting too close to them. However, when one of them ventured off from the rest, Rascal would run toward them, barking as she leaped in the air. It was her way of alerting them that they needed to come back. This approach was in sharp contrast to a college friend’s Border Collie, Jake. He had to be kept away from young kids because he would herd them in a circle, frequently bumping against them as if they were sheep.
As bishops, we must keep our eyes on the flock, without being overbearing and aggressive, which often leads to being hurtful. But when there is danger, we should not hesitate to sound the alarm in the strongest terms.
The Bishop as Teacher
The office of bishop is threefold: as priest, prophet, and king. These roles correspond to three missions: to teach, to sanctify, and to govern. As a teacher, the bishop assumes chief responsibility for the teaching of the faith in his diocese. All those who teach in Catholic schools do so as an extension of the teaching authority of the bishop.
As Chief Teacher, it is our responsibility to educate our own people about the nature of a Catholic school. Like all good teachers, we must guide them in their own understanding of the nature of a Catholic school. In our world today, we see two fundamental errors at either extreme: the belief that a Catholic school is essentially a seminary and should serve only those whose sense of the faith has reached a particular level. On the other end, we have some who believe that Catholic schools are social service agencies, seeking only to deliver a service with no regard for the faith. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton provides some needed guidance here: “Our dear Savior was never in extremes.”
May Our Lord Jesus Christ bless and keep our Catholic schools in this 2023-2024 school year!
Most Rev. Thomas A. Daly
Bishop of the Diocese of Spokane, WA., and chairman of the USCCB
Committee on Catholic Education