Partnership in the Gospel

August 01, 2019

By Sister Elizabeth Anne Allen, O.P., Ed.D.

They come from 4,083 kilometers away (2,537 miles). They go through three airports, enter three time zones, spend from four to six days away from home and are exposed to temperature measured on the Fahrenheit scale rather than their customary degrees Centigrade. Add in the “comfort” of sleeping on a plane, the efforts to arrive at the airport extra early to accommodate an international flight, and the typical challenges that beset traveling in a group of 20 to 30 people, and you get an idea of the lengths some educators will go to for professional development opportunities!

The current semester marks the visit of the third group of educators from Catholic schools in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada who have undertaken that rigorous journey to take part in Formation Workshops for Educators in Catholic Schools at Aquinas College. The sessions, planned and carried out through the Center for Evangelization and Catechesis and the Center for Catholic Education at Aquinas, contain both personal faith formation and professional formation components. Just as the Catholic school educates the whole child, this program is designed to form the “whole” educator. There are twin emphases on the educator as a person of faith and the educator as a professional in service to the Church and the community. The educator in the Catholic school is a person with a mission!

There are several benefits of attending the formation programs as a faculty and staff, which is how the program for the Vancouver diocese is currently structured. The first advantage is just the time away together as colleagues who, although they have different responsibilities, serve the same mission. This
action actually mirrors Jesus going away with His apostles for their own intensive preparation for their great work. That kind of “apartness” allows a common group identity and a sense of shared mission to develop and deepen. This, in turn, strengthens the sense of community among the members of
the administration, faculty, and staff. Many attendees voice the appreciation of having the chance to be with one another, to pray and talk, study and learn, eat and laugh together.

The awareness of Catholic education having an ecclesial dimension also develops throughout the formation experience. Several factors contribute to this. First, the content of the sessions is largely informed by the documents of the Church on education. Though the word “documents” may sound
intimidating, just reading brief excerpts from them shows the high regard in which the Church holds the ministry of teaching. 

When educators realize that the Church calls the teacher to be the reflection of Jesus the one Teacher and learn that teaching is a participation in his prophetic mission, they understand why the Church sees teaching as one of the human person’s most excellent and creative activities. They also see a more direct connection between their own involvement in education and the evangelizing mission of the Church. This motivates and encourages the educators and enables them to look at themselves and one another differently. Then there is a subtle shift in the group: a connection is becoming a bond. The
spirit of community is becoming the Spirit of Communion.

The opportunity to attend daily Mass and to pray the Liturgy of the Hours together also makes a unique impact, nourishing the faith of the individual and of the group as a unit. This is also reinforced by the opportunity to live in a community setting, even briefly. Consecrated religious appreciate the fact that living in community is one powerful type of personal and professional formation in itself, but members of the laity do not often get to experience that particular kind of life in community. The formation workshop allows that to happen for a short but effective time.

This experience of community is further enriched by the presence of clergy, religious, and laity together. The presence of the varied types of vocations in the Church makes the formation community rich and gives a more complete image of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. In the past, this type of interaction and collaboration was characteristic of most Catholic schools; but, currently, most schools do not have brothers or sisters on staff.

Being together in the formation workshop allows the separate and complementary mission of religious and laity to be experienced firsthand. Participants understand more clearly that religious witness to the possibility and value of forming community, and that laity give special witness to the role of faith in temporal affairs. Faith is not sterile. It bears fruit both in the individual and in the world in which he or she lives.

For all, the highlight of the workshop is the afternoon and evening spent at the Motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. The sisters take real joy in welcoming the group into their home, the place from which they are sent to serve the Church through education. The educators in the formation workshops are always a bit in awe at the beauty of the Motherhouse and at how genuinely they are welcomed, especially as collaborators in Catholic education. It is one thing to know that the sisters are a part of a larger community, and it is another to experience that by visiting and praying with them.
This is, especially for the lay people who attend, a concrete sign of the Church, that larger community of faith to which they belong and in whose mission they participate.

Mission is the key: being sent and believing you are sent. All of us are sent, each in his or her own way; and we support, appreciate, and rejoice in the gifts, work, and life of the other. That is how the Church is incarnate in this world today. Teachers teach. They teach by word, certainly; and they teach content, of course. But above all, they teach people—people who, like themselves, are made in the image and likeness of God. They teach most profoundly by example. When this is done in faith, it becomes witness. Undertaken with hope and joy, it proclaims—to students and to the world—that we are all made for heaven and that we are made to help each other on that journey.

Sister Elizabeth Anne Allen, O.P., Ed.D. is a member of the faculty of the School of Education and Director of the Center for Catholic Education at Aquinas College. Her doctoral research concerns student perspectives of Catholic identity as it is expressed and lived out in their schools. Having served in the roles of teacher and administrator on the elementary, secondary, and collegiate levels, Sister is passionate about the importance of teaching and is involved nationally with the professional formation of educators.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Aquinas Magazine.

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