By Rose O’Connor | Correspondent
On April 7, 450 high school teachers from all four counties gathered in at Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, for a diocesan in-service on Catholic identity.
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As superintendent of Catholic schools JoAnn Tier said in her welcome, the in-service day provided the opportunity for educators and administrators to gather in faith and fellowship and was designed as a “response to the 2013 Commission on Elementary School Sustainability in addressing our Catholic identity. We begin with the basics, informing teachers of the focus on the Diocesan Religion guidelines and expanding to Catholic tradition, practices, and the integration of the Catholic faith throughout the curriculum.”
Bishop David M. O’Connell , C.M. provided the keynote address to the educators saying, “Teachers, you hold the future of human society in your hands. That’s not a cliché. You pick up where parents and families leave off. Your students spend more waking time with you in school than they spend at home. Yours is a ‘captive audience’ and what you do and how you do it in the midst of their ‘captivity’ is what makes the world a different and a better place.”
The Bishop spoke to the physical, cognitive, emotional and social components of a student’s development and then focused on their faith development.
“You are Catholic high school teachers and educators: if you are Catholic, you already have an identity related to the Catholic faith. If you are not Catholic, you are teaching in an environment and context that is Catholic. In either case Catholic faith and identity is not optional. It is not only the identity of the priest chaplain, the campus minister, the religion teacher, the service learning educator, it is the identity and responsibility of the entire professional community in a Catholic high school.“
While every high school should present values and service to its students, Bishop O’Connell noted how “Only a Catholic high school uniquely exposes students to Catholic faith. It’s in the religion curriculum for sure, but it should also be in the very air they breathe.”
He challenged the educators to present an authentic Catholic education- something the students truly desire in a world that often portrays an anti-Christian and anti-Catholic view.
“They want something to believe in! If Catholic high schools don’t offer them that; if Catholic faith is not connected to real life as something essential; if Catholic faith is presented merely as an ‘add-on,’ one among many other things of equal or competing value; if the young do not see Catholic, Christian faith lived by us who, as teachers and educators in Catholic high schools- by us have been entrusted with their care and instruction as a source of seeking and finding meaning and purpose in life, the relevance of truth given us by Christ in the Gospel and taught by the Church will drift and wither away as they graduate,” said Bishop O’Connell.
At the conclusion of the Bishop O’Connell’s address, Dr. Margaret Boland, associate superintendent of Catholic schools and Sister of St. Joseph Kathleen Nace, principal and president-elect of St. Rose High School, Belmar, gave a history of Catholic education, during which they shared the challenges and questions that have faced Catholic education.
“Those challenges are part of our story. This is not a history lesson,” Dr. Boland offered. “Rather, it is your legacy- embrace your legacy.”
The words of Bishop O’Connell, the legacy shared by Dr. Boland and Sister Kathy truly resonated with the teachers.
“The Bishop was very inspiring and his talk gave me something to strive to achieve,” Kit Canning, a teacher in the science department in St. Rose High School, acknowledged. Her colleague Linda Hand, expressed a similar sentiment saying, “Dr. Boland and Sister Kathy have a good grasp of what are challenges are and how we need to remind ourselves of our legacy and the importance of our work.”.
Jeff Skalecki, who teaches History at Red Bank Catholic High School, remarked on the Bishop’s “fantastic” presentation saying, “He hit the nail on the head with the challenges we face as educators and how we have to overcome those challenges and inspire them not only to become great students, but great adults later.”
The teachers then attended breakout sessions with teachers from around the diocese of the same subject matter or department.
Franciscan Father Gabriel Zeis, diocesan vicar of Catholic education, met with the school campus ministers and chaplains.
“We need to allow our schools to be places where students encounter Christ,” he said then asked, “And what does it mean to meet him? What does it mean to bring Christ to our students?”
“Our schools do well allowing students to encounter Christ liturgically through the Word, sacramentally, communally in community service, academically, prayerfully, atmospherically- but where we can grow is through the witness of our faculty and staff. Witness is openness to reveal what Christ means to us personally, through our own experiences if Christ in our life and what Christ has done for us,” Father Zeis said.
The campus ministers were challenged to find ways to encourage and faith sharing and transform our Catholic faith from one of a private faith to that of missionary faith.
“We need to upgrade the level of our evangelization and we have to learn this missionary faith and incorporate that into a family catechesis. You are agents of this change,” said Father Zeis.
The breakout sessions proved beneficial for many of the teachers who enjoyed spending time with teachers in the same disciplines from different schools. “It was excellent. It was good to be with other athletic directors. We used this opportunity to better our Catholic Athletes for Christ Programs in our schools- which overall strengthens the diocesan program,” Giancarlo Riotto, Athletic Director at Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton, shared.
Hope Bauch, science department chair in Notre Dame High School admitted, “We can integrate our Catholic faith into all subjects and while it may be challenging in some subjects, it can be done.”
Colleague Susan Krempansky agreed. “Many of us integrate our faith into our lessons already. This makes us more accountable.”
The day concluded with Mass celebrated by Father Zeis and the school chaplains.
“What is most important is that we speak the truth of what we have come to know about Jesus Christ in a world that needs to hear about him and the only authentic way to proclaim that is through our own experiences,” Father Zeis reaffirmed in his homily.
“We need to become missionaries of faith- as St. Paul was,” he instructed, then provide the students with an “opportunity to encounter Christ, through you and through your engagement with them.”
Extending appreciation to the teachers for all they do for their students, Father Zeis said, “Thank you for celebrating this wonderful vocation we share together in Catholic education.”