A Short Message to Catholic Principals

Douglas P. McManaman
October 11, 2018
Reproduced with Permission

I was asked recently to provide points for a homily to be delivered by a young priest to a congregation of Catholic public high school principals assembled for a yearly retreat. Although there is much that I cannot offer--since I have never been an administrator--, after more than 32 years as an observer and religion teacher and more than 10 years as an ordained deacon ministering to those who suffer from mental illness, I think I can offer something, on a pastoral level at least.

The following are points that came immediately to mind. First, as the etymology of the word suggests, an administrator (Latin: ad, ministrare: to serve or minister to) is one who has a ministry, that is, one who ministers or serves. A Catholic principal is a pastor. My friend and former colleague in chaplaincy Father Dave Sajdak SDB used to tell the principal directly that he/she, not the chaplain, is the pastor of the school, the chief minister. As such, a principal is not first and foremost a "leader", contrary to contemporary eduspeak. Rather, he/she is first and foremost a follower. Of course, the one we follow is Christ. If the principal is first and foremost a follower of Christ--in contradistinction to the follower of orders from senior bureaucrats--, then he/she can in principle begin to lead in the true sense of the word.

The next point is to pray. Most Catholic high schools have a chapel with the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, but strangely enough, the chapel is typically the loneliest place in the school. To anyone with a "Eucharistic sense", that is, a sense of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the notion of going a full day without visiting the chapel at least once is simply unthinkable--if not an outrage.

The decisions that administrators are required to make on a daily basis typically exceed the natural prudence of an individual person; there are too many contingencies and not enough experience to handle, in accordance with the will of God, the many problems and dilemmas with which administrators are daily confronted. A principal needs to be open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit which were received as a sheer gift at baptism and which were strengthened at confirmation. But these gifts remain useless if a person does not pray, that is, if a person is not open to being guided by the Holy Spirit--and not by his own very imperfect counsel. Machiavelli argued that a cunning leader whose fundamental purpose is control, not ministry, must appear to be religious; the Catholic principal must be genuinely religious, that is, open to being led by God not generally, but in every circumstance. He or she must have a burning love for the Eucharist and a profound Eucharistic sense, which alone will lead him or her back to the chapel quite frequently.

Another important point to make was highlighted by Cardinal Collins during this year's Education Mass: Catholic educators must resist the temptation to "move the goalposts" so to speak. Remain faithful to Catholic teaching, challenge the faithful to holiness, to genuine heroism, and refuse to introduce initiatives that are scandalous and incompatible with Catholic teaching; one need not be insensitive, dogmatic, and unpastoral to do so. The human person is a unified moral "system", and so an emphasis on one area of the moral life to the exclusion of another more personal area of the moral life can only be self-defeating. That is why currently, years after the sexual revolution and having witnessed since then a de-emphasis on sexual morality and a heightened emphasis on social justice issues, we are not living in a more just world. In any single system, a neglect of one part inevitably affects the efficiency of the system as a whole. A young person who is not challenged to control his sex drive and direct it in accordance with the demands of reason is not going to grow into an adult who will be able to exercise proper restraint in the face of the temptation to a fraudulent course of action that promises great financial rewards. On the contrary, corruption begins on the level of the individual person.

Finally, consider that two views of human knowing flow through the current of the history of thought. The one view is a constrained view that appreciates the limitations that sense perception, place, and time impose on human knowing, the other is an unconstrained view that regards the mundane, non-specialized knowledge of the ordinary person as contained, encompassed, and surpassed by the specialized knowledge of the intellectual elite. The former view (the constrained) is the root from which genuine democracy and the free west sprung; the latter is the root of totalitarianism, which habitually regards the state as the principal entity and individuals as mere parts of the state, as a hand or foot is a part of the body. The totalitarian mindset of the intellectual elite is still very prevalent in government controlled education. PA days continue to be delivered from on high, and we still speak of "heads of department", as if the rest are "members" in need of direction channeled down from the intellectual source on high. Hayek had it right: knowledge is widely dispersed, and the net weight of the non-specialized and mundane knowledge of ordinary persons dwarfs the specialized knowledge of the elite, who in the idealist tradition does not feel his ideas need to be empirically tested. What this implies is the need for a healthy skepticism towards trends and fads that are fashionable one year but will be quickly forgotten the next, fads that fail to impress parents and teachers in the classroom, but for some reason excite administrators ambitious for higher position.

If we are indifferent to the Catholic character of our schools, I cannot see the blessing of God continuing to descend upon them and we will lose our system, and all those "leaders" who made this possible through such indifference will have to one day answer for the loss. We all have a huge responsibility, and so we need to realize that Christ is in charge, not the school board or Ministry.