The freedom to teach Truth: the blessing of a Catholic school

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Banners promoting inclusivity and welcoming all are seen in an undated photo hanging in the hallway of La Salle Prep in Milwaukie, Ore. Schools around the Archdiocese of Portland are trying to support concerned Hispanic students following stepped-up enforcement of U.S. immigration policy.
CNS photo/courtesy La Salle Prep

As the school year begins, there is always an array of different emotions that surface for us teachers and administrators. The summer is over; I don’t recall it flying by that fast as a kid. In the midst of our sorrow, though, is an underlying enthusiasm. It’s exciting to kick off a new year, a new beginning. It’s even more exciting knowing we can do it in an environment where we’re free. Yes … free.

Recently, I attended an archdiocesan conference titled, “Cultivating Positive School Culture” (see Page 3B). It was held at the University of Detroit Mercy, a beautiful campus in the heart of Detroit. The keynote speaker, Dominican Sr. John Mary Fleming, said something profound: “In our Catholic schools, we are free.” What did she mean? After all, we live in a free country … sometimes. She explained: “We are free to pursue the truth.” I hadn’t thought about it that way before.

Our public schools and universities are replete with wonderful teachers and administrators. Many of them are my friends. They care about the kids in their halls. And many of them are as selfless as the day is long. But what I find interesting is that all these schools purport to be the arbiters of truth, yet are prohibited from speaking about the Author of it.

As educators, we seek to bestow wisdom on our students in all its forms. The formation of the human person is at the forefront of every legitimate institution. But we cannot effectively do that by eliminating the most important facet of it — the human spirit; our children’s spirit. And that, I was reminded at the conference, is why we do what we do.

Walter Percy, author of acclaimed book “The Moviegoer,” said it best: “We can get all A’s in school, and still flunk life.” That’s a nail-on-the-head statement if I ever heard one. And it reminds me why we’re sending both our daughters to Catholic schools. The culture of our Catholic schools is what drives us parents to send our kids there. At least it should be. And while the academics and athletics are a vital part of that, absent truth they would cease to be. I’m reminded of a statement I heard at the parent night where my oldest daughter will attend high school this fall: “Our job as parents is to get our kids to heaven, not Harvard.” Agreed. Nor does that mean I want less than the best colleges for both my daughters. But “best” is a relative term.

My job as a parent is twofold: to prepare them to live in the world without me, and to become stewards of God’s grace, using their God-given talents. My job as a teacher is to convey many of the same lessons my students’ parents try to convey to their own kids — the ones who won’t listen because it comes from Mom and Dad. How do we fulfill both of those roles? It isn’t easy.

Blessed Pope Paul VI reminds us that a vital part of succeeding in that is “witness.” In his encyclical, “Evangelii Nuntiandi,” he says, “People listen first to witnesses.” Sr. Fleming reminded us that we are free to witness in our Catholic classrooms and halls because of God’s presence within us. As teachers, while we should be aware there is an ever-important academic portion to the study of theology in the classroom, our main concern should be our witness that prompts our students to want to learn it. And all of our academic subjects need to be leavened with it. It’s not just the theology teachers’ jobs. That takes balance.

Not every kid is meant to be a priest or a nun. Not every kid is meant to be married. Not every kid is meant to become a contemplative. The “freedom” we espouse in speaking of God must meld with our ability to teach it in a striking way; a way that will help our kids find their charisms, however diverse they might be.

Paul Stulligross

Teaching is difficult. Parenting is the toughest thing I’ve ever done. Hang in there, Catholic school parents. We’re all in this together. The sacrifices you make in sending your kids to our schools doesn’t go unnoticed. And although it’s maddening to explain to my own kids why we’re still driving a 13-year-old van instead of living “high off the hog,” I’m at least encouraged that we’re in an environment where we’re free to speak about truth. And that’s enough to make any life worthwhile.

Paul Stuligross is director of campus ministry at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Preparatory High School and a regular Michigan Catholic columnist.