Pandemic offers opportunity of ‘renaissance’ for Catholic education

Safety and health are of utmost concern for staff and students returning to classrooms across the globe during the pandemic, whether in a public or nonpublic school setting.

For Catholic schools, however, the mission of a well-rounded education is two-fold: to provide academic excellence and address a spiritual health that is deeply rooted in Catholic identity.

As such, critical attention has been given to Catholic values as schools plan for the upcoming year, with participation in liturgy and prayer and service-learning opportunities remaining a priority in both the in-person and remote classroom settings.

“When it became clear that we would have to quickly pivot to a home learning environment, our first step was to identify and make explicit what we do daily that makes Catholic education unique,” said Filippini Sister Elizabeth Dalessio, principal of St. Jerome School, West Long Branch. “[We are] guided by a philosophy to foster in students … a continuing growth in love of God and neighbor through our Catholic faith and Christian values.”

Dr. Edward Gere, principal of Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River, agreed. “We’re going to begin with the whole person. We’re not just going to dive into math and science right away. We’re going to be in the moment and recognize the blessings and the struggles we’ve gone through and continue to go through.”

At St. Mary School, Middletown, “We emphasize to all the parents that this school and Catholic education is the mission of the Church,” said Father Jeff Kegley, pastor of St. Mary Parish. “Catholic identity is the priority of our school; we’ll make great scientists, lawyers, bankers and plumbers – but our goal is to make great saints.”

Faith Connections

Community, rich prayer and sacramental life, integration of mind, body and spirit as well as real physical presence are all distinctive elements of Catholic education identified in Vatican documents. So much of the Catholic faith revolves around community, and having that community distanced by various forms of physical COVID-19 protections can have a profound impact on the individual’s psyche and spirit.

“Just think about the simple example of a student walking into a classroom and the desks are six feet apart,” Gere pointed out. “That has an effect on a person. And with masks on – it’s a whole different reality.”

He explained that Donovan Catholic – and all Catholic schools by that measure – teach the entire person. “We’re sensitive to our students, the needs of a person … that’s where we excel.”

Taking lessons from what worked during the spring shutdown, St. Jerome School will aim to repeat many of the activities and formats that strengthened its faith community.

“We hope to continue the activities that brought such meaningful connection during the last three months of school, including daily Rosary and Eucharistic Adoration,” Sister Elizabeth explained. “We will continue to pray for health care workers and all professions on the front lines.  We will celebrate activities, such as class liturgies and community feast day, that unite us with the Religious Teachers Filippini in Morristown and Rome.  We also hope to continue connecting with a truly extended family, through a pen pal program with students from Italy and Brazil who came to us on Facebook.”

St. Mary School will continue its community outreach and schoolwide Masses in its large church, said Father Kegley, who noted that the principal, Craig Palmer, “really keeps the minds of the kids focused on the fact that we’re called to serve others” with food drives and fundraising for causes throughout the year. The goal overarching academics is “to make it as normal as possible … life in Christ cannot be put on the back burner.”

New Reality, Same Mission

Donovan Catholic and St. Joseph School, which share a campus, will aim for reserving approximately one day a week for community-building for a particular grade.

“We might have it be a retreat day, and we could have a class Mass in the church if the numbers are allowed at the time,” Gere explained. Students could be allowed time to reflect on how the past several months affected them, and how they are doing now, he noted. “Some students coming back might feel nervous; I remember that feeling when going back to the store for the first time,” he continued.

“We also have to think about our teachers – they’re putting themselves on the line,” Gere said. “We’re going to take care of the physical, mental and spiritual health of our students and teachers before education.”

Sister Elizabeth said the coronavirus will never change the mission of St. Jerome School. “With the support of our community and the Diocese, we will continue to learn, love, and connect as one family, deeply rooted in our Catholic identity.”

Father Kegley agreed. “I really believe with all the craziness in the world right now, this should be a renaissance for Catholic education. We need institutions like Catholic schools that can teach the Gospel message – Jesus’ message of love, mercy and forgiveness. I believe it’s an opportunity for our mission to shine.

“The focus of Catholic education … is not just to teach, but to form,” he continued. “Children need to know they are not bystanders, but active participants in the Gospel.”

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