One of my struggles as an administrator in Catholic schools is understanding the meaning of Catholic identity. It is difficult to understand what it means in a vacuum and extremely difficult to understand the traditions and expectations other people possess surrounding the Catholic identity of your school. I often think you can substitute other words for Catholic (“learning,” for example) and imagine the same struggle to understand the identity of a school.
In my first stint as a principal, I received a fair amount of criticism about the Catholic identity of the school. This struck me personally because my Catholic faith was important to me and I had a long history in Catholic schools. I went to the wise Monsignor Richard Greene for advice. Fr. Greene was/is my pastor at Sacred Heart on the Teche in New Iberia. I asked him, “How do I become a better Catholic faith leader?”
He suggested the importance of distinguishing between my ad atra (interior) and ad extra (exterior) faith lives. In suggesting this distinction, he also illustrated the Catholic identity conflicts which are prevalent in our schools. For example, I could have an active and rich personal prayer life but if I fail to translate that to leading faculty and Advisory Council meetings with prayer, I have failed to link the ad atra and ad extra.
Many people are concerned with the interior aspects of Catholic identity—how people treat each other, for example, or how we respond in times of crisis. Or the quality of student retreats as an experience of God’s love. Others are concerned with the outward (exterior) symbols of Catholic identity—crucifixes on the wall, school uniforms, student behavior at Masses, etc.
Both are important, of course, but it’s important to help people recognize their expectations in each area so that the school community can come to a common understanding of where people stand.
Monsignor Greene provided sage advice on how to translate one’s ad atra into recognized faith leadership. I’m still working on implementing all of his advice but it bears re-print:
- Start all your inner circle meetings (even if there are just two or three of you) by leading the opening prayer, then inviting someone else to give a closing prayer.
- Start all other meetings with larger groups in the same way.
- Look for even very simple opportunities daily to make “faith statements” to those with whom you work. Examples: God sure has given us a beautiful day. Let’s keep our faculty and students in our prayers today. To individual faculty members and students: Is there anything you’d like me to pray for today? (If he/she tells you, say: Thanks, I’ll put that at the top of my prayer list.)
- In faculty/staff meetings when discussing a problem, new idea, suggestion, etc., ask everyone: OK–WWJD, how would Jesus handle this? Let’s make sure we come up with his answer to this question, not just with our answer? (Let the discussion proceed and as it seems to be coming to a specific recommendation, ask: Have we reached what Jesus would do? Are we and Jesus on the same page with this? Have we arrived at a conclusion that Jesus can live with? Will this bring us closer to God? Is this worthy of our being children of God? Are we convinced that the Holy Spirit has guided us to this recommendation/conclusion?)
- Ask faculty/staff/students to pray that you be a good principal. Example: Today I’ve got some important decisions to make (or: things to do, or: matters to attend to, or: an especially busy schedule today, etc.), so I’d really appreciate your prayers–would you say even a short one for me?
- Of course, all of the above questions/suggestions from your lips have to come first from your heart.
Dr. Tim Uhl