The following blog was contributed by Lincoln Snyder, the new president/CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).
Parents don’t just want their children to be happy; they want their children to be heroes.
One of the most distinct memories from my sixth grade year at St. John Vianney in Rancho Cordova, California was my mother playing the Joseph Campbell interview series The Power of Myth in the minivan on the way to school. A mythologist and the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell was famous for positing the Hero’s Journey, and though finer points of Jungian psychology were lost to my middle school mind, the series had my attention at Star Wars. Campbell reinforced something at the core of what Catholic school was teaching me, and which I hold to be true: we find meaning in becoming part of a bigger narrative.
A big part of leadership is storytelling; to quote Doctor Who, “we are all stories in the end, so make it a good one, eh?” For us as leaders in our system, we need to be telling stories that answer the question, to what end do we have Catholic schools? When I started my job as superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Sacramento, Bishop Jaime Soto was clear on his answer to that question: we are committed to forming servant-leaders in Christ. Our high schools in Sacramento all have mottos that reinforce this theme: St. Francis’ Graduating Young Women Who Change the World; Jesuit’s Men for Others; Christian Brothers’ Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve.
Parents want their kids to be sports stars or academic stars or arts stars because that kind of heroism is part of the cultural narrative we live in; as Catholic educators, we know, of course, that we are part of a much bigger and older narrative. My mentor in Catholic school advancement work always used his speeches and letters to tell the story of one particular student – a local kid made good through Catholic education. And people respond to that story of the call to service; I believe it’s part of our wiring to do so. It echoes the story of a Kid from the provinces who was in the building trades until about thirty who then went on to be the greatest Hero of all time. You may have heard of Him…
Which brings me to the point about heroes. As a disciple, there’s only one kind of hero you will be, and that is a servant-leader in Christ. It’s what He modeled for us. In Catholic schools, we don’t hand out cheat sheets on servant-leadership; we say, commit to Him and it’s where you’ll end up.
Think of this past year. I am convinced that this is a great time to be a Catholic school leader. If you want to be around heroes, just spend some time at a Catholic school. We moved to distance learning on a dime, and we were the first safely back to the classroom – and we stayed. Our teachers did this with no expectation of glory. But this year has been a glory, an Aristeia, a moment of excellence. Our teachers and leaders were valorous, and they were His kind of heroes – not Hector of the Bright Helm, but Ms. Miller of the Fourth Grade.
There have been challenges and setbacks. We saw an initial drop in enrollment when COVID hit, and some of our schools have closed. But there is good news. We attracted more new friends to Catholic schools than in recent memory, and many of our schools and dioceses have grown. I am confident that our schools can grow. When I made my initial report to the school board as a new superintendent in Sacramento, I told them that we didn’t have a product problem, we had a marketing challenge. People didn’t understand what makes Catholic schools good and different and worthy of their investment.
As a school leader, make it your mission to answer that question. A big part of my journey has been finding my own way to answer it. In a recent podcast conversation with Bishop Robert Barron, Dr. Jordan Peterson offered that young people leave the Church not because we ask too much of them, but because we ask too little. By asking too little of a child, you telegraph a lack of faith in their possibilities. We know how to ask something – the right thing – of kids.
Many of our new families didn’t come to our schools for the faith. They came because we were safe, open and excellent. But now that they are with us, they are staying – about 90 percent of the families that came to Catholic school during COVID are re-enrolling for next year. They see what a difference a faith community makes in the lives of their students and they are happy to be a part of that story.
One of the programs I’m proudest of in Sacramento is called Education in Virtue. My friend Sister John Dominic of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist is a genius who figured out how to teach St. Thomas Aquinas to six-year-olds. We teach six-year-olds servant-leadership as well, and what I like to tell them is this:
Jesus loves you so much that he’s going to ask you to do something great for someone else.
He’s asking you, too. He’s asking us. I believe in this mission of making kids into heroes in His name, and I believe that with heroes like you, we can grow this mission.
Thank you for saying yes to Him.