Now in its third year, Aquinas College’s Center for Catholic Education has already served educators in Catholic schools from 28 states and over 40 dioceses. In conjunction with the Aquinas College School of Education, the Center serves Catholic elementary and secondary schools by providing spiritual and professional formation opportunities held both at Aquinas and in individual schools or dioceses.
Whereas priests and religious accounted for over 90% of educators in Catholic schools through the 1960s, priests and religious now comprise less than 3% of faculty members in this country. By collaborating with Catholic elementary and secondary schools, The Center for Catholic Education aims to help teachers face the challenges posed by this great shift.
Sister Elizabeth Anne, O.P., Director of the Center, points out that the Church documents on Catholic education state that “the more states of life you have represented in any institution, the more fully it represents the image of the Church. Collaborating with teachers in Catholic schools, especially those which do not have religious on their faculties gives this opportunity for joint witness.”
The various formation sessions and the annual W.I.S.E. conference on campus serve as professional development and retreat opportunities and seminars for learning about Church documents and how to strengthen Catholic identity in schools.
The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia currently teach in 45 schools and serve other ministries in the United States, Canada, Australia, Italy, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands. Their extensive practical experience, coupled with the 800-year Dominican tradition of preaching and teaching, make the Center’s work a natural fit.
Sister observes that the teachers she encounters are “tremendously dedicated, but I think that sometimes they don’t understand how important they are to the mission of the Church.”
Despite the great challenges in Catholic schools, Sister Elizabeth Anne receives assurance from her work. “When you’ve really been attentive to the Spirit and when you relate to the people in front of you,” she reflects, “all of a sudden you get this sense of community, a shift from looking at the school as an institution to a community, to finally reaching communion. When you feel that communion of Spirit, that’s when you know that you’ve been of use.”
Sister, along with Sister Mary Anne, O.P., Sister Matthew Marie, O.P., Sister Martha Ann, O.P. and Dr. Hope Link of the Aquinas School of Education, were able to travel to Rome for the World Congress on Catholic Education in November, 2015. Pope Francis addressed the attendees at the final session. “His address to us was very affirming,” she recalls. “He faces the challenges head on and then he somehow transmits this great joy in this struggle. He reminded us of our responsibility and our privilege to deal with the people of God, and to look at what is true and good and beautiful, and to encourage people in the life of faith. His faith in education, his belief in the value of it, just comes forth from him, and it encourages you.”
The second annual W.I.S.E. (Witness + Inspire + Serve + Educate) conference will take place over four days in June and is open to those who serve in any capacity in Catholic schools. The programs during those days focus on the unique nature, identity and mission of the Catholic school. Reflecting on last year’s conference, Sister Elizabeth Anne recalls, “Being in community and considering the Church’s mission in Catholic schools was enriching and encouraging.” There were 22 educators fro 11 different dioceses attending the first W.I.S.E. and their roles included superintendents, principals and teachers campus ministers and board members. Their various perspectives strengthened the experience for all the participants. ”
Despite the staffing challenges in Catholic schools, Sister recognizes that the primary struggle is spiritual: “The values of our current culture are pressure points for us because our chief values are the Beatitudes. And they’re counter-cultural. There’s not a lot in our culture that supports being poor in spirit or meek or suffering. So to really see the beauty in doing that, that the Church expects us to do that, gives us the means to do that, it’s very hope-filled.”