As we begin a new school year in the Diocese of Metuchen it is fitting to introduce the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis (GE) promulgated with four other documents on Oct. 28, 1965.

The declaration, approved by the assembled bishops by a vote of 2,290 to 35, highlights several important attributes of Catholic education including its philosophical and theological foundation, its universal scope, the role of parents and teachers, religious and moral principles, different types of Catholic schools and Catholic higher education. In describing the distinguishing characteristic of the Catholic school the declaration explains: “The special function of the Catholic School [is] to develop in the school community an atmosphere animated by a spirit of liberty and charity based on the Gospel. It enables young people, while developing their own personality, to grow at the same time in that new life which has been given them on baptism.” (GE, 8)

According to Vatican II, what makes the Catholic school distinctive is its religious dimension. This is found in a) the educational climate, b) the personal development of each student, c) the relationship established between culture and the Gospel, d) the illumination of all knowledge with the light of faith. These are the qualities we constantly seek to make present in all our Catholic schools in the Metuchen Diocese.

It is also noteworthy that the opening of our present school year coincides with the opening of a new pontificate. Our new Pope Francis recently indicated the importance he places on Catholic education by an impromptu visit he made to a June 2013 conference in Rome titled “Believing, Loving and Living Truth.” As well, the name the new pope chose is in itself a guide for our Catholic schools in their aim and purpose. Recalling the great saint of Assisi, his name suggests a disposition of outreach and service. Addressing the fundamental needs of our time by living a life of service, while emphasizing the basic teachings that ensure the formation of Christ in individuals and in our society, Gravissimum Educationis too recognizes that the fruit of Catholic education “prepares its pupils to contribute effectively to the welfare of the world and to work for the extension of the kingdom of God, so that by living an exemplary and apostolic life they may be, as it were, a saving leaven in the community.” (GE, 8).

Catholic education, of course, involves the whole question of evangelization. All of Christ’s disciples are called to teach the good news “bear(ing) testimony by their lives and their teaching to the one Teacher, who is Christ.” (GE, 8) The formation of Christ in minds and hearts is the purpose that flows through the whole teaching and formation process in Catholic schools. This does not mean that we teach only religion. We seek excellence in every branch of education. This means that all our teaching is influenced and guided by the teachings of Christ in the gospel, and by the apostolic mission of the Church with the pope, the Vicar of Christ as its head.

While Catholic education is a priority for the whole Catholic community, this is most especially true in the home which the Church refers to as the “domestic church.” Parents are the first apostles, the first teachers of their children, our most precious and richest resource. They are called to watch over, and to help cultivate the development and formation of their children.

All of us have learned our first lessons from our parents and especially from our mothers. This is where we were first introduced to Christ and learned the values of our faith. When the American Bishops issued a pastoral letter in September, 1919 they observed: “The nursery of Christian life is the Catholic home; its stronghold, the Catholic school.”

No one can replace the teaching mission of our parents. They are the first to whom the Church looks for support and conviction in its efforts to provide a sound Catholic education for children. “As it is the parents who have given life to their children, on them lies the gravest obligation of educating their family. They must therefore be recognized as being  primarily and principally responsible for their education.” (GE, 3). The Catholic school is meant to continue and to give added strength to the efforts and apostolate in the home.

As parents are the teachers at home, there are, in a sense, surrogate teachers in the school. It is important that these two groups work closely together even as our whole Catholic community looks to the Catholic teacher with the expectation of competent Catholic leadership. They are the ones who create the spirit of faith and the communal spirit in the school. They are the first to be vigilant in securing the positive value of Catholic schools and never allowing anything that would render schools less effective, less Catholic.

As a beneficiary of Catholic education I fondly recall my own experience of fine Catholic teachers. I gladly pay tribute to the constant efforts of Catholic teachers in making the presence of Christ evident in their interaction with children and young adults. I especially commend Catholic teachers for making manifest the image of the unity of faith and good works in their personal lives. So often what makes a deeper impression are not words but actions or even better, a certain poise that cannot be communicated orally. To paraphrase St. Francis of Assisi from whom Pope Francis borrows his name: “Teach always and when necessary use words.”

Catholic teachers are in the frontline of the Church’s greatest apostolate, guiding the young to know and love what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful. In the words of the Gravissimum Educationis: “Teachers must remember that it depends chiefly on them whether the Catholic school achieves its purpose.” (GE, 8).

In saying all this there is no intention of limiting or down-grading the curriculum or any new teaching method or any better visual aid or any more helpful text or resource material. Rather, the intention is to emphasize the truth that the primary importance is always the very climate of the school.

Our children and young adults are called to learn the truth, to live the truth, to love the truth and to share it with others. They are the whole reason why our Catholic schools exist. In fact, what is being done for our children and young adults today will bear much fruit as they generously pass it on to others. Their faith, generosity, and ardor, will be the best guarantee that our schools are truly alive and truly Catholic.

We need to treasure our Catholic schools. We want them to be living communities filled with the spirit of Christ and His teachings. We are all called to a sense of community in our common effort in favor of our children and young people. By our constant interest and abiding love we shall guarantee that they will feel, as in reality they are, a very vital and valued part of the whole People of God.

Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop. To read his previous columns on Vatican II please visit www.diometuchen.org/father-hillier