Shaping Men and Women for Others in Catholic Schools

For the many of us who have attended Catholic schools, we may wonder what makes a Catholic education different than a public one. As my wife and I have been re-watching episodes of The Wonder Years and Boston Public, there have been many moments we’ve paused and said, “In a Catholic school, a teacher would have the freedom to handle that problem differently.” But how exactly would things be handled differently? I believe that the elements of Jesuit education, inspired by Ignatian spirituality, can and should be present in Catholic education in general. And as a soon-to-be Catholic high school teacher, this is very much on my mind.

Ignatius tells us that the purpose of life is “to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord.” This is the reason we exist and everything we do is in service of that. The jobs we do, the education we get, the relationships we maintain, the reason we go to church, and even the things we buy should all serve the purpose of serving God. Allowing all those aspects of our life to be integrated is a goal of Catholic education. The Jesuits call this cura personalis, or care for the whole person. It means an educator’s job is to not solely to form the intellect, but to help a student form his or her social, spiritual, and emotional potentials. In other words, teachers are responsible for helping students uncover the women and men God desires them to be. When we’re balanced in all those areas of our lives, we can become “men and women for others,” as many Jesuit schools state in their mission statements.

But how do we do this? How do we become whole persons? Ignatian spirituality gives us a three step process:

Be Attentive

Here’s where we ask the question: What is my reality? Ignatius wants us to look at our current reality. Prior to his conversion, Ignatius was a vain and prideful soldier who lusted after women, power, and status. He seemed to have before him a path paved with gold. Traditional education offers little opportunity for true observation of our own life. Yes, we look out at the world. In science we begin with observation and in math we begin with a problem. But how often do we look interiorly at our own reality? If we look at ourselves, we’ll likely find we’re not whole. We’re broken. Something feels lacking.

Be Reflective

This is where we ask the question: What is the meaning of my experience? After Ignatius’ leg was shattered by a cannon ball, he lay in bed recovering. During this time he reflected on his reality and realized that he was not who he was supposed to be. Ignatius’ reflective time in bed was the beginning of what would become Ignatian discernment and decision-making. Catholic education needs to give sufficient time for students to reflect on their reality. What are their gifts and talents? What are their hopes and dreams? What do they believe and why? This is where tapping into imagination and emotion is just as important as intellect. Ignatius dreamed about a future of virtue and service to God. He noticed different feelings arising in him that indicated something about how he wanted to change his life.

Be Loving

This is where we ask: What does the world need me to do? Moved by the love of God, Ignatius chose to act. Ignatius left his former way of life, repented, and sought out ways to help those in need. He went back to grammar school and then on to university, realizing the importance of an education. Our reflection should always lead us to action, an action that comes from a place of love. And our action in the world gives us new experiences to reflect on, leading us to more loving engagement with the world.

The Jesuits call this Ignatian cycle being a contemplative in action. This is what makes Catholic education different. We begin with our human reality: sin, messiness, imperfection, coupled with a desire to do good; we reflect on how God is calling us to greater wholeness; and then we respond to God by taking a step toward that wholeness. When I teach high school theology I’m not looking to get my students simply to memorize Bible stories and theological concepts. My hope is that what they learn can touch their own reality, move them to personal reflection, and help them uncover who God is calling them to be. Education ought to be a means toward that end, because once we discover that our vocation is ultimately to serve God by serving one another, we can become leaders who affect good in the world.

Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.