Mission of Catholic education remains solid

Forming our future
By Jules Michel
Let the children come unto me!
As an educator, I have always liked this quote from the New Testament.  Jesus was a teacher who invited the children to come to him to learn about the kingdom.  What more powerful statement is there of the priority of Catholic education in the kingdom of God.
The Plenary Councils of Baltimore, Maryland, in 1852-1884 pronounced the support of the American Bishops of that period when they proclaimed that every new parish created in the country must have a Catholic school affiliated with it!
So many times Mississippi is considered last in education, but that cannot be said of Catholic education.  We have one of the oldest, continually operating Catholic schools in the country, Natchez Cathedral School, founded in 1847.  It is also the oldest school in the state still in operation despite a Catholic population of only 3 percent. The four remaining Catholic high schools in the diocese represent 593 years of uninterrupted Catholic education of not only Catholic students, but those of every race, nationality and religion in the world.
This could only have happened through the Holy Spirit as He inspired the religious men and women who founded and established our school system. It could not have happened without the parents and parishioners of the past 170 years social and financial sacrifices. Yes social sacrifices, as there were times when it was not socially acceptable to attend a Catholic school.  In the African American community it was an even more socially dividing institution.  In the black communities some Catholic school patrons were made to feel as if they were trying to “be white.” In the white communities many felt the Catholic Church should not educate the African American for fear he might learn enough to buck the white social system existing in America.
I am sure the Italian, Syrian, Irish and German immigrant Catholics in America were made to feel the same way in their respective communities. (This is not unlike the social road blocks that existed in the time of the early church as it followed its mission of evangelizing the Gentiles.) For nearly 2,000 years we have seen that you cannot separate God and learning!
So what about Catholic education in Mississippi? We have seen from where it has evolved, but where is it going? Does the Catholic school system have the same mission as it did in 1847 or has that changed also?
As a person who has spent 43 years of his life in Mississippi’s Catholic Schools, I can say without a doubt our mission has NOT changed.  In fact I think it is even more appropriate now than it was 168 years ago.  If we consider that the mission is to provide a Catholic, faith-based academic education to all those persons desiring such a school, then it has not changed. What has changed is who. Who is staffing our schools and who are our current students.
In the post Vatican II era of the 1960’s we saw a dramatic decrease in the number of religious men and women choosing Catholic education as their vocation. I began working in the Catholic schools about this time, 1974. Within 10 years, the schools became almost totally staffed by lay persons, some even non-Catholic.
The challenge of the schools at this time was to make sure the lay staff and administration was totally vested in the original Catholic school mission and the charism of the religious who founded the state’s Catholic schools. Among men and women religious, even on a national scale, there was concern that lay educators just could not keep our schools “Catholic.”  Amid many obstacles I feel we have not only kept them Catholic but added the dimension of the lay Catholic charism. Since most of the Catholic school educators were products of religious-led Catholic schools, they tended to keep these traditions alive. In addition many of our lay administrators were married and had children which added another dimension to how they perceived their ministry of Catholic education.
I believe one of the most successful changes in the new era Catholic school has come in the teaching of religion or theology. These programs have not only embraced the traditional teachings of the church but also the social teaching of the universal church. Lay staffs are modeling how students must take not only their academic training into their adult life but also the spiritual training that requires them to be lay, adult witnesses to the teaching of Jesus Christ. They have become the St. Pauls of modern times.
The second major change in the 21st century has been the larger number of persons of other faith beliefs choosing a Catholic education. We can assume they are not all here to become Catholic, although a significant number do convert. No, they are here for quality academics, a safe environment and an education intertwined with Christian values. This addition means we have added a new dimension to Mississippi Catholic education, that of evangelization!
So what does the future hold? Well, that is up to you, the patrons and alumni and to our former students. If you feel our schools have given you a quality education and preparation for life, then you will support us with your children and patronage. If you are open to selecting a ministry in Catholic education you will support us with your talents. With only 14 of our schools still open since 1847, I can only hope that the Holy Spirit will work in them as He did in the early, catacomb church.  As Father (Alfred) Camp always said, “It ain’t easy!”
(Jules Michel is principal of Vicksburg, St. Aloysius, and has been principal of Jackson St. Richard School, Natchez Cathedral School and Greenville St. Joseph Schools.)