Timothy Cook, associate professor of education at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., said he recalled meeting a principal from a Catholic school once who told him he was upset to find out a student was considering skipping his grandmother’s funeral.
When the principal inquired of the student why he would consider such a thing, the student noted that he was afraid of marring his perfect-attendance record — and not receiving a school award recognizing it.
“Perfect attendance was not a value to Jesus,” Cook said during a small-group session at the Institute on Catholic Education at the University of Rochester July 8.
During his small-group session, Cook urged audience members to look at how their schools identify themselves as Catholic. Students’ academic performance and their regular attendance are also recognized by public schools, he noted, yet Catholic schools pride themselves on offering something more — a daily experience of faith.
Cook also was a keynote speaker at the July 7-8 Institute on Catholic Education, which drew about 140 Catholic educators and administrators from all over the northeastern United States, according to Mercy Sister Mary Edwardine Weaver. Sister Weaver recently retired as director of the Catholic School Leadership Program at the university’s Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development. (See related story on page B5.)
During the small-group session, Cook said that Catholicism is a faith that appeals to the senses because it incorporates such items as incense, statues and religious pictures in its rituals.
“Religion is an experience of image and story before it is anything else,” he said, noting that Catholic schools need to offer that experience.
Catholic-school logos and classrooms should contain crosses or some other symbol of the faith, he said, and mission statements should include words rooted in the Gospel. School Web sites should contain information about the schools’ Catholic identities, he added.
“What is your school spending money on?” he asked his listeners. “Is your retreat budget as large as your athletic budget?”
Sitting in Cook’s audience during his presentation was George Benjamin, principal of St. Agnes School in Avon. He said he agreed with Cook’s presentation, and added that his own school’s walls have crucifixes as well as a painting of the rosary. Every Friday, the entire student body, along with St. Agnes staff, attend a liturgy together, he said, adding that he personally greets students coming off their buses every day to set a tone of warmth and welcoming.
In response to inquiries from the Catholic Courier, several Catholic schools in the Diocese of Rochester noted they make efforts to promote their schools’ Catholic identities, from holding regular prayer sessions and Masses for students to organizing community-service projects and giving out awards for Christ-like behavior.
For example, St. Lawrence School in Greece has a bulletin board recognizing children “Caught Up In God’s Spirit.” The school also holds weekly prayer gatherings in its gym, and puts on a musical each spring with a spiritual theme, according to Joseph Holleran, principal.
Meanwhile, at St. Rita School in Webster, a prayer banner in each room displays a saint that each class chooses as its patron. Students also pray daily in classrooms and in a school-wide assembly each week, according to Mercy Sister Katherine Ann Rappl, principal.
Our Lady of Mercy High School in Brighton strongly emphasizes service to others, according to Virginia Lenyk, director of marketing and communications. The school’s students raise money for the hungry through an annual day of fasting; spend a month each year raising funds for local, national and international organizations; and visit such sites as Rochester Psychiatric Center. Like other schools in the diocese, Mercy’s building boasts crosses, religious statues and wall displays of inspirational words, Lenyk noted, adding that the students also pray as a community daily.
Cook added that Catholic schools might consider taking nontraditional approaches to such events as the junior prom, adding a faith element to the celebration. He also noted that faculty members should be evaluated regularly for how they promote the faith, and suggested that they be required to participate in such activities as liturgies and retreats. He said that everyone working for a Catholic school should be devoted to promoting the faith.
“We save ourselves a lot of problems down the road if we’re clear where everyone is up front,” he said.