How often I have quoted words of wisdom and experience from our renowned Superintendent of Schools, Giovanni Virgiglio. Some of us call him “Gee-yo,” for short. With my Roman education, I flinch at the addition of the “y” in what native Italians pronounce as simply, “Joe.” No matter. Names can never hurt us. And though it is common for school people to get picky, a little prickly, even compulsive at times about order, correctness and propriety, what we do at Catholic schools is much more than to follow the book and march lockstep to protocol.

Catholic schools have often been admired — and critiqued — for their adherence to discipline. Forming young people to become model citizens, respectful of legitimate authority, human rights and social justice consciousness are all hallmarks of Catholic education. As I mentioned above, however, Dr. G (as I beg indulgence to call him here, for short) has often noted that our schools are more than schoolhouses with a cross on top. They are all about faith, family and, as our website proclaims, “higher powered learning.” See: https://www.higherpoweredlearning.org.

Take a moment to visit the website. It’s still a work in progress, but you will see immediately how our Catholic schools strive to reflect what a family, rooted and lived in faith, looks like. It is not primarily about structure and hierarchy — and no society can exist without both — but about relationships, founded on mutual respect, accountability and commitment to truth and excellence. Everyone has a place, which we discover together, with the help of the Holy Spirit, in whom and through whom our faith families find our identity, as persons in community.

You will sense this immediately when you alight on the website. What you see are the joyful faces of young people, going about their activities. Links to our 25 schools will draw you deeper inside as you feel the vibrancy that animates the life they radiate. You may have to search deeply to find the principals, teachers and staff — professionals all, yet people who place faith and family first — that animate our programs and projects. Neither they nor even Dr. G are the first faces you will see, let alone my own, in encountering what our mission is all about: the formation of the whole child. This is the Catholic School Advantage!

The Romans, we well know, coined the ancient adage: mens sana in corpore sano — a sound mind in a sound body. They got it half-right, at least. Education is much more than just filling a mind with facts and data. That is how you program a computer. Our children are much more than laboratories created to process information, automatons who will serve as tools in the hands of tyrants and technocrats one day to advance whatever the currently reigning ideology, party or regime dictates. We teach them to think!

People who think do not always agree with everything or everyone all the time. Truth is not about conformity or uniformity, but about discovery of what the Truth really is. In the process of learning, therefore, we ask questions, challenge groupthink, develop the ability to reason: it’s how our minds and spirits grow and flourish. Mens sana means a healthy mind and that includes our spiritual, emotional and physical well-being.

The Romans were certainly not wrong in balancing mental acumen with physical soundness. We are “incarnate spirits,” as our faith teaches us, which is no way antithetical to science. Faith, like science, is reasonable and both ways of seeing reality complement the other. As Christians, we do not view the body God has given us as inferior to the mind or to our spiritual nature. Recall that we are a resurrection faith, believing in the ultimate salvation of the whole human person, body and soul.

So, it will not surprise that our Catholic schools teach good care of body and the environment in which we live — “our common home” about which Pope Francis often speaks and teaches so eloquently in his encyclical, Laudato Si’. These were the words of St. Francis in praise of all of God’s creation. We teach our children to respect the nature, as science affirms, in which they were conceived and those of every other human being. We also understand that as human persons, we exist not only as islands of individuality — unique though each of us is! — but as intimately connected in our humanity and in our community of faith.

It is at the core of our Christian Faith that God has created us in the very image and likeness of God. This means many things, since God is intimately and vastly mysterious. God’s core identity — three divine Persons “crazy in love” with the Other, revolving about the Other, “dancing” about all of creation itself — is beyond our capacity to understand fully except in an eternity of discovery and praise. Which, of course, is the heavenly destiny to which we are called. In time and space, however, this is manifested, partly in signs and symbols, in Word and in Sacrament, in the mystical Body of Christ we call the Church, the “ecclesia” from the Greek, the community gathered together, all of its parts made sacred in and through Christ, the head and capstone.

Yes, we believe every person has a place in this Body. Our job is to listen to the Holy Spirit, the master of relationships, the Love between the Father and the Son, who helps us bring out the best in one another, the person each is called to be by God, not ourselves alone. We are always more than we can see on our own, looking in a mirror, dressing up, or counting our awards and deeds. We are connected to one another and to Someone much greater than ourselves.

We have struggled with so many changing, well-intentioned ways of keeping our school environments safe and healthy in the midst of an extraordinarily challenging pandemic. We may not always agree from week to week or day to day on how best to do this together, so that we can have the best possible learning environment. We expect there will be tensions that require great patience. As a virus itself mutates, how we best respond to it and its effects, not only for our bodies, but our emotional, social and spiritual well-being, will continue to call us to use our best resources, thinking, praying, and discovering what is still not fully known.

Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist, also a man of deep Christian faith, once said, “Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.” I praise our Catholic schools this week for being families where no one is excluded, branded or judged for using their God-given faculties of thinking, reasoning and communicating. This is the essence of synodality, by the way, of which we are all learning more together. It is also the hallmark of Catholic education, the ability and willingness to listen, learn and grow together: the Catholic School Advantage!

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