MILLTOWN — The mission of teachers in Catholic schools is perhaps more important now than ever, according to a speaker at the annual diocesan teacher Spirituality Day, held Aug. 24 at Saint Mark’s High School.
Daniel Cellucci, chief executive officer of the Catholic Leadership Institute, was the keynote speaker. He told the teachers and administrators that he normally works with pastors and dioceses, but his organization’s work had relevance in Catholic education as well. Catholic schools, he said, are “the primary tool of evangelization.”
Celucci related a story from 1984, when a Catholic sister who was an associate superintendent of schools said that the mission of Catholic schools had essentially been fulfilled in 1960. There was a Catholic in the White House, and many business leaders in the country were Catholics. The schools had successfully integrated Catholic children into American society. Educational leaders had to decide whether Catholic schools were going to become private schools for those who can afford it, or training grounds for prophetic witnesses in society.
When asked which of those they wanted, most teachers in attendance raised their hands in favor of preparing prophetic witnesses. But, Cellucci said, the church faces a “people shortage.” The number of people who practice their faith is down. Fewer couples get married in the church, and the number of children baptized who don’t receive their first Communion is significant. The number who are not confirmed is even higher.
The Catholic Leadership Institute, he told his audience, has surveyed more than a half-million Catholics around the world. The questions have covered beliefs and practices, how people feel supported or not supported by the church, and where they intend to educate their children.
Baby boomers represent the largest percentage of Catholics in America, and the group that more regularly practices their faith. Generation X is smaller, and only about 30 percent attend Mass weekly. That group includes the older parents among today’s students. There is hope in the millennials, Cellucci said.
“The millennial generation is quite large, and they are the ones making the big family decisions right now,” he said. “We actually have a big opportunity in front of us, but we need to set new expectations.”
Some parents, he said, believe that paying tuition means that the responsibility of raising children in the church transfers to the school. He talked about his own experience of being raised in the faith.
One of four siblings, Cellucci said he is the only one who still practices his faith. He credits his grandmother for playing a role in that. As a young boy he was able to spend time with his grandmother without his two older siblings present, and his younger sibling was likely too young to understand what was going on.
She lived next to the Catholic school he attended, and he recalls saying the rosary with her.
“Most importantly, my grandmother spoke about this person in her life constantly. She would tell me about this relationship. And that relationship was with Jesus,” he said.
“I wonder if we had had some of those conversations, my siblings would have found some relevancy in them.”
Cellucci listed seven tenets of Catholic social teaching that educators should keep in mind. The first was the life and dignity of the human person. He asked the teachers to consider what they can do to assist parents who have questions. Perhaps they could offer those parents a conversation.
“If we can create a space, chances are something else is going to come out that God can do something about,” he said.
The second was the call of family, community and participation. People are looking for relationships.
“They are craving authentic, real relationships,” he said, “They are craving relevance. What am I connected to that is bigger than me. They are craving impact.”
The church, he continued, can address all of that.
Another tenet has to do with rights and responsibilities. Sometimes, demands are placed on teachers and schools and can be tricky to address. But when rights are demanded, he said, we must own our responsibilities. We have to let people know what true freedom looks like, the Catholic definition of freedom.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, true freedom is “the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility.” It attains perfection when directed toward God.
There is a preferential option for the poor among the tenets. Catholic schools shine in this aspect, Cellucci said. They help connect children with social issues, which is as important as doing service work.
For solidarity, Cellucci said faculty and staff don’t have to be best friends, but people can tell when people don’t like each other.
“What you model, either consciously or unconsiously, they pick up. We’re learning from you all the time because you’re our teachers,” he said.
Another is the dignity of work and the rights of workers. People have a very warped notion of what teachers do everyday, Cellucci said.
“I can barely get my four children out of the house every day, and you’re with them all day long,” he said. “We have to raise the dignity of your work, and remind people that you are professionals.”
The messaging in this area, he said, must be better.
Finally, he listed care for God’s creation. A modern focus is on the environment, but that is not the only area of concern. He asked if we have a mindset of scarcity or one of abundance. We tend to fall into the scarcity camp.
“But again, our purpose is bigger. He calls us to an abundance mindset. God has so much more in store for us than we can possibly imagine,” he said. In an anxious world, he continued, the idea of talking about God’s abundance could bring peace to people.
He closed with a story about one of his son’s teachers who noticed changes in his demeanor, then that he was struggling physically. The teacher recommended he get checked by a doctor. His son was diagnosed with cancer, and, Cellucci said while fighting tears, his teacher may have saved his life.
“You play many parts, and we will never, ever be able to pay you enough for the role that you play.”