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Catholic Secondary Education in an Apostolic Age

May 6, 2021 9 min read
By Rev. Jared Johnson Pastor, Pro-Cathedral of St. Mary, Bismarck, ND
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Officially accepted as a seminarian for my home diocese in April 2005 – the same month that Pope St. John Paul II died and Benedict XVI was elected to the papacy – a great deal of my seminary formation focused on something about which those popes had often spoken: the New Evangelization. Despite the highly focused education and formation I received around the New Evangelization, however, what I can only describe as a black hole seems to arise in the midst of many conversations about the New Evangelization in terms of practical approaches and pastoral strategies. I found this to be particularly true in my first priestly assignment, as a full-time high school chaplain and instructor filled with the determination and zeal to bring the New Evangelization to my school and my students in any way I could. Looking back at the mix of both victories and failures, it seems that the victories could have greatly outweighed the failures if I had better understood and acknowledged the lay of the land. Archbishop Fulton Sheen describes the situation I encountered clearly in a talk entitled “The Fourth Great Crisis of the Church,” saying simply, “We are at the end of Christendom.” Understanding what it means to stand at the end of Christendom provides context for the idea of the New Evangelization and begins to offer practical and visionary guidance for the various institutions of the Church today, especially our Catholic High Schools.

Christendom or Apostolic

At the outset of the University of Mary’s From Christendom to Apostolic Mission (accessible in Foundations), a crucial distinction is drawn between an age of “Christendom” and an “apostolic age.” A Christendom society is defined as “one that goes forward under the imaginative vision and narrative vision provided by Christianity” (p. 13); a glance at the history of the West will reveal that, from the fourth century until very recently, “Western civilization has been to one degree or another, a set of Christendom societies” (p. 14). The Church in an apostolic age differs most clearly from the Church in an age of Christendom in the way it intersects with society: “In an apostolic situation, because the Church is not the major influence in the society’s overarching vision, the need is not mainly for maintenance, though this comes into play; it is rather for apostolic witness” (p. 26). In each age, the Church requires a mode of activity appropriate to the opportunities and challenges it faces. It nearly goes without say that our age is indeed an apostolic age; thus, our strategies and approaches in teaching, preaching, and missionary activity will find similarities to those of the Apostles and the earliest disciples of the Lord Jesus.

Social values and cultural realities that formerly contributed to the project of the Catholic school have been replaced with values and realities at odds with it...

The distinction between the two modes of activity allows us to see that many pastoral strategies today are more fitting for an age of Christendom than they are for our apostolic age. This is often no less true for Catholic high schools than it is for other Catholic institutions. For example, there are a great many benefits offered to a student and a family in being part of a Catholic high school: daily religion classes; opportunities for daily prayer, including the rosary and Eucharistic Adoration; class retreats; pilgrimages and mission trips; religion teachers; sacred art in classrooms; prayer at sporting events; priest chaplains; support from like-minded peers and teachers – the list goes on. While each of these components of a Catholic education can (and should) be lifegiving beyond measure, there is still a tendency for many students to be inoculated with the faith in such a way that it ceases to become transformative in relation to what matters most: conversion of heart. I have heard it remarked that we receive a little Catholicism here and a little Catholicism there, and all of a sudden it ceases to make any difference – almost like a Catholic vaccine. In some ways, what I have described here is an education and formation in a Christendom mode of engagement. Students are presented with bits and pieces of the faith Monday through Friday from 8:15am to 3:00pm in formative programs that fail to take into account the reality that young people today are living in an apostolic age. Social values and cultural realities that formerly contributed to the project of the Catholic school have been replaced with values and realities at odds with it: “almost overnight, these societies went from being strongly Catholic to aggressively secular” (p. 31).

The New Evangelization and Catholic Secondary Education

In attempting to understand how the New Evangelization can be truly practical and transformative for our apostolic age – especially in a Catholic high school culture – it seems helpful to highlight the three main points of focus for the New Evangelization offered by St. John Paul II. The New Evangelization is to be new in its “ardor, methods, and expression.” These three points of focus can be found within the pages of From Christendom to Apostolic Mission, and together can be seen to offer a Catholic high school a kind of roadmap for transforming the hearts and minds of young people in our own apostolic age.

Ardor – An Apostolic Attitude

We all know well the discouraging numbers and trends offered to us by reliable surveys and recent studies: a dwindling number of Catholics going to Mass, the meteoric rise of the religiously “unaffiliated,” Catholic schools closing across the country, a decrease in Catholic marriages, fewer young men entering the seminary, fewer vocations to the consecrated religious life – the list goes on. When we recognize that our present age is an apostolic age rather than an age of Christendom, it becomes crucial to note how the Apostles faced any crisis: “they were not discouraged; they were filled with joy and hope… they knew that their task was to be used by the Holy Spirit to grow the Church, and they knew the graced means by which it was to grow. And grow it did” (p. 37).

The attitude and ardor of the Apostles was based on one person and one reality: Jesus. Their hope was not false optimism, their faith was not unfounded, their charity was not fake niceness; rather, they were convinced that “Christ is the answer to every human ill, the solution to every human problem, the only hope for a dying race” (p. 37). Adopting an apostolic attitude is essential for every committed believer, especially the high school chaplain or teacher. While we try to point our students to the perfect degree or college of their dreams, the tried and true direction in which we must guide them is a lived relationship with Christ and his Church. In doing so, our efforts and strategies do not draw strength from our own gifts or brilliance, but rather from the risen Christ. This was true for the Apostles, and it must be true for us.

Method – Not Business as Usual

One of the most heartbreaking experiences for any parent, priest, or teacher is to witness a child or student leave the faith. While this can certainly sound saccharine or melodramatic, it is realistic. As parents and educators are then left to ask the question of what went wrong, we often proceed to provide an interior inventory of what we have done for our children or students. We brought them to Mass, prayed before meals, sent them to a Catholic school, etc. In essence, we did for them what our parents had done for us. Does it not follow logically that what worked for us should have worked for them? The clear reality is that such methods have not worked – things have changed. The transition from an age of Christendom to an apostolic age was remarkably quick, having caught many off guard. As a result, we must admit that this is not "business as usual” (p. 31).

The New Evangelization is meant to be more than a catchphrase in the life of the Church. The apostolic age in which we live requires the renewed ardor, methods, and expression offered by the New Evangelization.

We all inherit a certain way of doing things – whether as parents, teachers, or priests – from those who came before us. Most of us continue to go about our lives based largely on what was handed down to us. In recognizing that we must proceed in a way that is “not business as usual,” we allow ourselves truly to analyze and assess our strategies and approaches. There are few things that can be more fruitful than stopping to ask the question, with honesty, “is this working?” For those in Catholic schools, this question must be something asked regularly at faculty and department meetings. While the answer to the question – and the alternative approaches that need to be found – may not be immediately apparent, the question is always worth asking. This is not business as usual.

Expression – Maintaining and Using Institutions Differently

If you would like to insult your employer or superior, inform them that they have created a culture that feels overly “institutional.” We have come to use this word to describe stuffy, cold, or overly bureaucratic environments. However, “institutions are essential to Church life, indeed to human life,” (p. 42) and whether the institution is a family, a school, a parish, or the Church as a whole, “a healthy institution is always ordered to the human person and enhances, or at least does not diminish, the humanity of those under its influence” (p. 42). It is the leaders and the stakeholders of a given institution that provides its needed vision and direction.

Many individuals have been involved in the often dreadful and painstaking task of developing or enhancing an institution’s mission statement. While not diminishing the importance of carrying out such work with great creativity and boldness, it is important not to simply restrict words like 'mission' and 'vision' to such efforts. The Apostles were clear about their mission, vision, and agenda: the fulfillment of the Great Commission, to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Do our institutions in the Church have such clarity? Do we pay attention to questions of overall mission and vision? Do we eagerly sell and accurately articulate our ultimate mission? These are questions that any principal can ask of his or her school and any teacher can ask of his or her classroom. Yes, it should be an obvious non-negotiable that leaders in our schools focus on such questions, but we must be sure that those same questions are present in the hearts and minds of every member of our faculty and staff.


The New Evangelization is meant to be more than a catchphrase in the life of the Church. The apostolic age in which we live requires the renewed ardor, methods, and expression offered by the New Evangelization. While being at once practical and theoretical, scriptural and cultural, the New Evangelization gives leaders in the Church today a kind of framework for assessing, evaluating, and analyzing our current strategies and approaches for the various institutions of the Church. This is especially important for those of us fortunate enough to be involved in one of the most vital apostolates of the Church today: Catholic secondary education. May we be filled with the courageous boldness of the Apostles, understand that this is not “business as usual,” and joyfully take on the mission entrusted to us by Christ himself: to go into the whole world and make disciples.

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