Sunday, February 9, 2014

Why Catholic Education? (Part 1)

Yesterday, I was privileged and blessed to have had the opportunity to speak at the Diocese of St. Petersburg's Catholic Foundation Celebration dinner, an event to raise funds for tuition assistance for students at our Catholic Schools.

This is an excerpt of my speech (Part 1 of 3):

Why Catholic education? It seems like such a simple question, and one that I'm sure most of us in this room would answer with affirmations such as: faith-based education, stronger academics, better discipline, and maybe a service orientation. Catholic families need to have a faith based alternative to public and other private forms of education.

My responses, when Bishop Lynch first asked me the question, resembled those as well. But, as I continued to probe and search for an answer to the question why have I committed myself to the cause of Catholic education, I couldn't settle for these visible and apparent advantages to Catholic schools. So, as an answer to the question "Why Catholic education?" I'd like to give two responses, one from a personal perspective and the other from a global one. Then, to close, I want to move us into a new way of thinking about our Catholic faith as it pertains to Catholic education and its future.

From a personal perspective, my commitment to Catholic education stems from both an evangelical and catechetical component.

During my sophomore year of college at the University of Notre Dame, my faith had naturally swelled into a desire to use my gifts and talents to make the world a better place. I vividly remember sitting in a moral theology class that winter and being struck by a moment of clarity. My sophomore year of college had few such moments, so the poignancy of this one continues to resonate with me. I sat in class and wondered why I was there. Not in moral theology class but in college and specifically at Notre Dame. With the conviction that only 20 year olds can muster, I thought, "I'm going to drop out of school and go volunteer somewhere. People are hurting, suffering, in need of so many and various forms of assistance, why am I wasting time in college?" From a moral standpoint, I thought, how was it fair that I sat in such academic and spiritual luxury while there was so much good work to be done? Wasn't it time for me to do something?

Then, as only a 20 year old's mind can do, I jumped back to reality and to class. Fr. Mark Poorman, the class's professor, was one of the rectors in my dorm and someone with whom I had developed a close relationship. He was my confessor and quasi spiritual advisor. And despite that momentary daydream, he was a darn good teacher.

It was at that moment that I realized what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to teach. My mind raced to another one of the great teachers that I had been blessed to have - Fr. Michael Brunovsky, a Benedictine monk - and how much he had inspired me as a teacher throughout high school. I could do that, I thought. I could make a difference, I could change the world by teaching. From an evangelical standpoint, it was at that point that I became motivated to live out my faith in the form of and after the model of Jesus, the Teacher.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that He has commanded us. (Mt: 28: 19)

Fast forward 7 years and I'm back at Notre Dame in the Alliance for Catholic Education's Leadership Program. At that point I had worked, zealously, in Catholic schools for five years and had been led to discern a possible shift in my educational role from teacher to administrator. Feeling somewhat called, but not quite convicted I wanted to leave the classroom, I entered the program figuring that the graduate degree would at least diversify my resume. I entered somewhat lukewarmly. I was dedicated to Catholic education and had no intention of leaving for the public or private sector. But, I can't say that I was committed. I was the chicken in a bacon and eggs breakfast. Involved, not committed like the pig.

Almost with the same type of clarity I had received 7 years earlier, I vividly remember sitting in Fr. Ron Nuzzi's class on the first day of the program and being simultaneously inspired and frightened. Fr. Nuzzi, a man who possesses an intimidating physical, spiritual and intellectual presence, demanded that we learn the words to ACE's mission statement. "How can you be a part of the organization, huh, and not have a clear sense of the organization's mission?" While reviewing the ACE Leadership student handbook, Fr. Nuzzi made his expectation for attendance at Mass clear, "If you're looking for where it says that you should attend Mass with the group, you won't find it in the Handbook. It doesn't need to be there, huh. It's in the Bible." Needless to say, no one missed Mass. Ever.

Figuring that the program would focus on administrative areas like finance, school law, human resources and the like, which it did, I was unprepared for what turned out to be, for me, the more impactful piece - the heavy focus on Catholicism. I found myself desiring to be more Catholic and having this desire fulfilled through the ACE Leadership Program. I learned how to locate the readings within the lectionary. I know what a Sacramentary is and can locate Mass parts within it. I can pray the divine office. I know that the podium in a church isn't called a pulpit. The terms ciborium and purificator used to be foreign to me. I read Church documents - papal encyclicals, Canon Law, the Catechism. For the first time in my life, despite 10 years of Catholic education leading up to that point, 6 of which that were within higher education, my faith was galvanized through this catechesis. I'm still working my way through the Catechist modules here in the diocese, but my time spent in the ACE Leadership Program motivated me to be more Catholic.

Already compelled to pass on the gift of faith that I had received from my parents, family, high school and college, I became convicted that God was calling me to be a Catholic school principal to ensure that students at my school would be both evangelized and catechized. Fill students with passion for the faith and give them the strength that comes from understanding the reason for their passion. Preach and teach. Create good Catholics - Catholics both on fire for and in love with Jesus.

Why Catholic education? Our world needs good Catholics; my evangelical and catechetical work within Catholic schools can help to make this happen.