School Choice & Charters

Catholic School Leaders Hone Spiritual Side

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 06, 2003 5 min read
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Becoming a spiritual leader takes some getting used to for Roman Catholic school principals who previously worked in public schools.

After all, in their old jobs, public-turned-Catholic-school administrators say, they felt prohibited from talking with students about personal religious faith. In Catholic schools, they’re supposed to guide students and staff members in spiritual growth.

It’s common for lay principals of Catholic schools to be asked to pray aloud in front of large groups or to plan a Mass that is appropriate for children yet liturgically correct—skills that may not come naturally even for someone who has attended church for his or her whole life.

To help ease new principals into their roles as spiritual leaders, the Washington-based National Catholic Educational Association provided several sessions on the topic during its annual principals’ academy here in July.

At least four educators who previously worked in public schools and took the helm of Catholic elementary schools last fall were among the 20 new principals of Catholic schools attending the academy. About 20 veteran Catholic school principals also joined the workshop, which lasted four days.

The NCEA doesn’t keep track of the number of educators who switch from public schools to Catholic schools each year. Anecdotal evidence, however, seems to show that such career moves have become more prevalent over the past 10 years, said Brother Robert Bimonte, the executive director of the NCEA’s elementary department and the moderator for the academy. Almost all Catholic schools require their principals to be Catholic, although they often hire teachers who are not.

The NCEA helps principals of Catholic schools nurture the spirituality of students and teachers because faith expression in the school climate is what distinguishes Catholic schools from many other private schools, said Brother Bimonte.

Maintaining Catholic identity in church- affiliated schools is a regular subject at NCEA meetings and in the group’s publications because increasingly, lay Catholics—not priests and nuns—set the spiritual tone in Catholic schools. Currently, only 5.6 percent of the 163,000 professional full-time staff members of Catholic schools in the United States are nuns, religious brothers, or priests, according to the NCEA.

Sharing the Faith

The four Catholic principals who had switched recently to parochial schools from public schools said they did so primarily so they could more openly share their faith with students.

“I always wanted the chance to work in a smaller setting where you can use the words ‘values and morals’ and dialogue with students and staff,” said Sheila Warren, who became the principal of the 185-student St. Bridget Parish School in River Falls, Wis., a year ago, after serving as a special education teacher in local public schools.

A Baptist who converted to Catholicism five years ago, Ms. Warren said she’s able to help students in their faith at a Catholic school more than she could at a public school.

But she said she’s still figuring out what’s appropriate in her new role as a spiritual leader.

For example, she said, it’s hard to discern how personal she should get when praying aloud with faculty and staff members. “You’re supposed to have that distance between you and the people you supervise—and yet I stand and hold hands and pray with them,” she said.

And she said she still doesn’t feel comfortable leading impromptu prayers in front of a large group: She often selects a written prayer to use in such settings.

Peter D. Morkert, a former Lutheran who likewise became a Catholic several years ago, said he accepted the job as the principal of the 540-student St. Theresa Catholic School in Phoenix a year ago at the urging of the priest who is the pastor of St. Theresa Parish. Mr. Morkert had worked for six years as a teacher and administrator in public schools.

“I really felt the calling to be able to share my faith and be in an environment to do that,” he said.

In times of national crisis, he added, he finds that expressing religious faith in a school setting is highly meaningful.

For example, he related that during the past school year, the parents of two students in his school were sent to Iraq to support the U.S.- led war there. He said the school community rallied behind the children and parents by praying for them and sending prayer cards and care packages to the parents.

By contrast, he said, when he was teaching in a public school at the time of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he felt he couldn’t encourage students to pray either at school or home.

For Deanna Young, the principal of Good Shepherd Catholic School in Santa Cruz, Calif., working in a school where she could express her faith was so important that she took a pay cut from $80,000 to $60,000 to switch from being an administrator in a public school to heading a Catholic school.

Spiritual Instruction

At the heart of the NCEA academy’s sessions on spirituality was a presentation by Peter A. Tantillo, the principal of St. Alphonsus Liguori School in Prospect Heights, Ill., about how he grew into the job of being a spiritual leader.

He advised new principals that they could avoid the anxiety of having to come up with eloquent prayers at a moment’s notice by keeping a manila folder of written prayers they’d collected at Catholic gatherings.

He told how, early in his career as a Catholic school administrator, he avoided an opportunity to minister spiritually to some children in his school whose father had died. But later in his career, after he was more comfortable with being a spiritual leader, he was able to provide such support in a similar situation.

Mr. Tantillo told the new principals that God could help them become spiritual leaders. For instance, he noted, he is a shy man, but God, he said, seems to have increasingly bestowed on him a knack for public speaking.

He encouraged the new principals to develop their spiritual- leadership abilities.

“Our schools wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the Catholic identity of the school—a spiritual dimension,” Mr. Tantillo said. “They’re needed for that.”

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including governance, management, and labor relations—is supported by the Broad Foundation.

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