Christ at the center in San Francisco Catholic schools… really!

We are all familiar with the many wild and crazy stories that come out of the San Francisco Bay area. Unfortunately, some of those stories even involve our Catholic schools and people who oppose the Church while purporting to represent her.

Last year it was a female Catholic school teacher who was rehired as a male Catholic school teacher. Then this school year started with a story about an uproar over San Domenico School deciding to rid itself of many icons, images, and important statues. This decision was made so as not to offend families attending a school founded by Dominican sisters and named for the great teacher and preacher, St. Dominic. Well, I am sure we are all ready for some good news.

Good news is ours to hear, as the Archdiocese of San Francisco unveils a plan for its schools to “put Christ at the center of things.” A new superintendent graces the offices of education, and she is clear about her priorities. Pamela Lyons replaced the retiring superintendent this last spring, and she is starting off the new year announcing a three-year initiative to reorient the schools to Christ.

Now many in Catholic education claim to do this, but Lyons is clear and serious about what this entails—getting the schools back to focusing on the Holy Eucharist. Christ is here, in the Eucharist, truly present, body, blood, soul, and divinity, yet it seems we suffer from a collective amnesia. We have religion class, but forget He is next door in the Church, waiting for us. The discussion these last several years around Catholic identity has turned our language in Catholic schools back to mentioning Christ. But, in San Francisco, it looks like they really understand what this means. It seems as if their superintendent is bringing back the memory, wiping away the amnesia, and awakening the Catholic school system to what it really means to put Christ at the center.

This is in sharp contrast to another diocese (names withheld to protect the guilty) where the number one goal was a totally revamped program for data collection. Without constant data collection and monitoring, how can we ever hope to serve our students’ exact needs, the training session implores? A clear nod to Catholic identity is given, of course, because these are basically good people, but they are not formed in a Christian anthropology, so they do not realize that their schools must be imbued with that, above all else.

In a world where data collection drives nearly every aspect of our lives—from our shopping habits to our viewing history, to our Google searches—it is especially problematic when it becomes a driving force in education. A data-driven educational philosophy can only, ultimately, be about minutiae which are measurable but also fleeting. It is concerned with information and application of a few select skills. Yet it seems that the more concerned we get with data, and the more seamless the collection of data becomes with technology-based assessments, the more detached we are from the hearts of the students we teach.

It also seems clear that the further we “progress” in educational research, the further down the slide test scores across the nation go. Some good schools may get better, but most of the rest of them get worse and worse. Every year we hear more and more about the latest crisis in American schools, and then of the newest education-saving program that, 10 years later, proves to be a disaster. It would do us all well and good to stop and realize that progress, along the wrong path, is anything but progress.

I am reminded of C.S. Lewis who surmised that when we have lost our way, the quickest way forward is usually to return home. Data has “a” place, but it should not be what drives a Catholic school. Data cannot measure those most fundamental principles and outcomes of a successful Catholic school, the theological, intellectual, and moral virtues—nor can it measure a relationship with Christ!

Well, Pamela Lyons is seemingly taking heed. She is returning the Catholic school system home by bringing the schools back to our ecclesiastical home, the Church, and particularly the physical Church where Jesus resides in the tabernacle. Without denigrating or denying the profound importance of all the “school subjects” that students must learn, San Francisco students will actually find greater motivation to increase their performance in those subjects. They will see how they fit into the bigger picture, into the eternal importance of their daily duty. It is here, in front of the Eucharist, that both a school’s faculty and students will find the real end of their Catholic education, the Alpha and the Omega, our Lord in His simple abode. In Mass and adoration, they will find that it actually does matter what literature they should read, that true history is Christocentric and not what Sacramento politicians deem important today, and how science must be in accord with Faith because “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

In allowing a faculty and student body to rest in His presence and receive him into their hearts, a real relationship will build, a relationship with Truth, Beauty and Goodness Himself. This will revitalize a tired system that has been distracted from the eternal goal of education: that is wisdom, virtue and eternal life.

MICHAEL J. VAN HECKE, M.Ed., a seasoned headmaster and educational speaker, is also the founder and president of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and the Catholic Textbook Project. In their spare time, he and his wife farm avocados.

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