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 | By Sarah Salow

How to Raise Scholarly Saints

Romantic poet William Blake observed, ‘We become what we behold.’ As the Diocese of Lansing prepares to renew its Catholic schools, Associate Superintendent Sarah Salow details the importance of ensuring students spend their time beholding all that is good, beautiful and true.

Blake’s timeless observation manifests itself throughout all areas of society, in all ages and stages of life. For good or for ill, human beings absorb the characteristics of the environments in which they spend their time. Individually and collectively, we are shaped by those influences. This is just as true in the realm of education as it is in the workplace, society or culture.

Father Steve Mattson served as Superintendent of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Lansing from 2009 to 2015. In 2010, he issued a landmark report titled Maintenance to Mission: Transforming Our Catholic Schools. Within its pages, Father Mattson asserted that any quick evaluation of the contemporary world reveals that, “Our schools must be Catholic to the core, which means they must focus on the truth, strive to form the whole person, seek excellence at every level, and transform minds and hearts into the image of Jesus Christ.”

The Diocese of Lansing is blessed with 36 schools working toward this very mission. But we cannot stand still in a world that is constantly changing around us. Our mission is one that requires constant reflection and frequent renewal.

In his opening remarks to the same report, Bishop Earl Boyea noted its outlining of “where our schools need to go [as…] we face a culture often hostile to the values that bring young people to happiness in this life and the next.” 

Renewal means standing for the truth, even when that means standing in the breach. So began years of prayer, reflection and research as the Diocese of Lansing’s Office of Catholic Schools began to introduce — and then immerse — our pastors and principals in the roots of the Catholic intellectual tradition. This timeless tradition proposes that faith is fully compatible with reason and, thus, there is no conflict between Christianity and any true science or other academic knowledge. This mutual harmony is typified by the story of the Magi, who were led by reason and science toward the newborn Christ in Bethlehem. (Mt 2:1-12) 

This dialogue between faith and reason has spanned two millennia and stems from the attempt by the early Church to define the truths of Christianity and how to live accordingly. That divinely inspired process was informed by the human wisdom of the classical world, especially the philosophy of ancient Greece. The Church fathers saw the learning of the Greeks as the dawn before the rising of the sun or, rather, the Son. The incarnation of Christ fulfills, rather than refutes, human reason. 

Take, for example, St. John’s deployment of the Greek term logos, which had been defined seven centuries previous by Heraclitus of Ephesus as the principle of order or knowledge in the universe. “All entities come to be in accordance with this Logos,” Heraclitus wrote. 

Hence, in the prologue of his Gospel and writing to the Hellenic or Greek world, St. John begins with the remarkable claim that Jesus Christ is the Logos incarnate: “In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God … And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” (Jn 1:1,14)

Similarly, the early Church baptized the Greek notion of “the transcendentals,” which are identified as truth, beauty and goodness. Thus, the Catholic intellectual tradition posits that these three lead the human heart and mind to God who is truth, beauty and goodness itself. 

One of the most pivotal resources in our diocesan journey has been Archbishop J. Michael Miller's 2005 text The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools. The five essential marks of Catholic education identified within the book help answer the critical question: “Is this a Catholic school according to the mind of the Church?” This question has provided the touchstone for our principals as our schools have striven to become ever more authentically Catholic, while also embracing a commitment to curriculum renewal too.

This process of renewal fully recognizes the good work already occurring in classrooms and parish communities across the Diocese of Lansing. The approach is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. It builds upon a commitment to support and strengthen all that is presently good, true and beautiful within our schools.

Recognizing that our primary call is “to go and make disciples” (Mk 28:18), the Diocese of Lansing’s Office of Catholic Schools chose to begin this curriculum renewal with the religion curriculum framework and sought to include representatives from both the schools and parishes in its renewal. This group utilized knowledge of catechesis, evangelization, and education to develop a framework that aims to assist schools and parishes in bringing about a renewed zeal and commitment to know and love Jesus and his Church. The early childhood through eighth-grade framework was released in April 2023, with a five-year implementation roll-out. This marks the most prominent curriculum framework release since our commitment to the Catholic intellectual tradition renewal began.

After just a few months of use and via an anonymous survey, teachers are reporting that “students are using the Bible and reading Bible verses more,” are engaging in “hands-on activities and contributing to discussions,” and are “enjoying sacred art” as a class. The responses use words like “joyful,” “eye opening” and “engaging in truth” to describe what teachers witness in their classrooms. The religion curriculum framework will surely be the vanguard of centering classrooms on the good, the true and the beautiful, pointing, as they do, toward our Lord. 

During autumn 2023, a team of teachers from grades K-12 embarked upon the renewal of the history and literature frameworks. The frameworks for all other academic subjects will be renewed and released with multi-year implementation plans in the years to come. The first round of renewals is expected to continue through 2028, with implementation completed by 2030. 

Through this decade-long renewal, authentic Catholic education will continue to grow as an engine for evangelization for the Church and the culture. Across the diocese, education within school communities will increasingly cultivate hearts in truth, goodness and beauty, and enable students to confidently confront the numerous falsehoods of our current age by revivifying a tradition of truth-seeking, the Diocese of Lansing will continue to partner with parents in forming our children as saints and scholars.

Sarah Salow is Associate Superintendent of the Diocese of Lansing Catholic Schools.