After a Thanksgiving spent with relatives, I found myself thinking about the polarization present in our society.  NCR ran a great story last week on “Healing Polarization in the Church” and the NY Times a funny piece entitled “How To Have a Conversation with Your Angry Uncle.”  It’s on our minds as the toxic political and media environments are seeping into our church.

We cannot allow the poison of acrimony to enter into our church communities.  Even at the top echelons of our Church leadership, we are seeing division and competition.  We cannot divide ourselves into two camps and lob insults at each other.  We must dialogue within the Church.  And there’s no better place to start than the recently-canonized St. Paul VI’s Ecclesiam Suam (1964) an encyclical which addressed the four characteristics of dialogue:

  1. Clarity—what is said must be intelligible.
  2. Meekness rather than arrogance or offensive words.
  3. Confidence in the good will of both parties.
  4. Sensitivity to the audience.

In this lengthy encyclical, St. Paul VI takes pain to describe the importance of dialogue—not proving one’s point, not demonizing another side, but listening and speaking toward the common good.  I thought of the model of Jean Vanier and the L’Arche community which seeks to make the disabled the center of the community and surround them with able-bodied volunteers.  “A Christian community should do as Jesus did: propose and not impose. Its attraction must lie in the radiance cast by the love of brothers.”

The US Bishops pick up this theme in their latest pastoral against racism “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love” (2018).

From revelation, we know that the one God who created the human race is Triune, a communion of love, and so by faith we recognize all the more clearly that human beings are, by their very nature, made for communion.  Pope Benedict XVI noted, ‘As a spiritual being, the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations.  The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his or her own personal identity matures.  It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God.’  We are meant to love God with our whole being, which then overflows into love for our neighbor. (163-169)

We are challenged to create faith communities in our schools.  And building faith communities means more than giving our students valuable formative experiences.  It means that the adults must commit to listening, respecting, and loving one another.  Gary Umhoefer, the retired HR director at St. Norbert, has a great article in the latest Journal of Catholic Higher Education entitled “Teaching by Example: Staff Interactions at Catholic Colleges as Behavioral Models of Christian Love.”  He traces how the staff formation programs teach staff members to model Christian love and build community.  After all, he asks, “If Catholic colleges cannot provide interpersonal examples to what it means to love one another…will students observe the personal choices this commandment demands?” (198).

I was reminded of a quote from Educating Together in Catholic Schools, the Vatican’s 2007 document on education.  As I read through the Church documents on education, I was struck by the use of “communion” instead of community in this document.

“It is precisely the presence and life of an educational community, in which all the members participate in a fraternal communion, nourished by a living relationship with Christ and with the Church, that makes the Catholic school the environment for an authentically ecclesial experience” (14).

Notice that the Catholic school is held up as an authentic experience of church (“ecclesial”).  We are called to live by a higher standard.  We are called to fraternal communion nourished by a living relationship with Christ.  This isn’t about understanding and espousing the correct teachings, it’s about forging a true community.

In Catholic schools, we often point to our family atmosphere and community as one of our strengths.  And we focus on the student experience of community.  But Educating Together calls us to a higher standard—meaning that adults should apply themselves to building community.  Gossip, competition, jealousy have no place between teachers, between teachers and principals, between principals, between principals and the Central Office, or even between education departments of different Catholic universities.

As we begin Advent, perhaps we could all benefit from searching for ways to build up each other in our Catholic school communities in order to form communion.  For further study on the document, here is link to the study guide and here is the direct link to the podcast I produced with Kristin Melley where we talk about Educating Together.


This blog originally appeared in Catholic School Matters on December 2nd and portions appeared on the NCEATalk blog.