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Standing on the Shoulders of Past Giants

By Dr. Michael Boyle, the diocesan superintendent of the Catholic Schools Office | September 2020

Standing on the Shoulders of Past Giants

I have been in education for over 30 years, and I have never had an opening of school like this. The current challenge is great. No other time that I can identify has a school system returned to school in these circumstances. This is certainly an unprecedented time for Catholic education. The current challenges and forecasted threats to Catholic education seem unmatched. There are a myriad of feelings that accompany this – anxiety, fear...

Yet, this is not the first time that Catholic education has faced these kinds of challenging obstacles. A review of the annals of Catholic education reveals that there have been other existential challenges of this nature. In these conditions, the pioneers of Catholic education, mostly the religious women who established the Catholic schools in this country, blazed new paths and were able to find ways to ensure the viability of Catholic education.

Even in the mid 1800s and the face of the typhoid epidemic, the newly arrived Sisters of Mercy immersed themselves in serving the sick and dying. As Sister Patricia McCann states, the Sisters of Mercy’s “heroism resides in the fact that they did not hide from life; they met ordinary tasks with extraordinary generosity. It is an inspiring heritage, and a valuable life lesson in 2020.” Truly, today’s Catholic educators are currently being called to emulate this heroism from these giants of the past.

To be honest, starting in my new position of superintendent in this fashion wasn’t what I envisioned. I had envisioned a more auspicious commencement to this part of my education career. However, the thoughts of preparation for a fall opening of school in an uncertain future seems insurmountable. Pope Francis has offered that “present difficulties have stimulated the creativity and inventiveness,” and this has invited us to new methods of engagement and ministry.

As such, our Catholic school leaders and teachers are being invited to a period of “creativity and Inventiveness,” and I can report that our Catholic schools have responded with an extraordinary outpouring of such creativity and inventiveness. Our school faculty and leaders have certainly embraced this challenge with open arms. Numerous teachers have attended professional development sessions over the summer to increase the repertoire of skills to meet the needs of our students.  The diocesan teachers have been working tirelessly to prepare materials for the new year.

All of this was done while many had to  prepare to teach in new environments. Our principals have been working to secure the necessary resources to support the many shifts in learning that will be seen this year. They have worked to develop safety plans that help to address creating safe learning environments for our students.  School support staff have been as busy, preparing to support learning in our schools.

From technology staff who have added new devices to support all channels of instruction and maintenance staff who have been shifting rooms to create new forums of learning, the staff of the diocesan schools has been working to support the ministry of education.  And of course, we cannot forget to mention our pastors who have worked with our principals and teachers to provide the necessary support and to ensure that all these changes could happen.

Our current heroes of Catholic education are certainly reminiscent to those giants who created the Catholic school system in this country.

This moment in time is reminiscent of the conversion story of St. Ignatius of Loyola. St. Ignatius didn’t set out on a path of holiness. In fact, this boastful son of a well-to-do family, who had a very colorful life, had planned on becoming a soldier. Then, his path in life changed. In the Battle of Pamplona in 1521, Ignatius was seriously injured by a cannonball that caused a lengthy and painful rehabilitation period. This was the start of the journey for St. Ignatius in which he found his calling to ministry. It was during this slow recuperation that Ignatius was introduced to the lives of the saints, and his life started to change. He ultimately gave up this path and surrendered his sword to Our Lady of Montserrat. This long journey of discovery eventually led to the founding of the Society of Jesus, more commonly referred to as the Jesuits.

As a people of faith, we have to gather our strength from our spiritual life. It is often reported that the command “Fear not” is exhorted in the Bible 365 times. A gentle, daily reminder that we are not alone. With this promise, we are empowered to adopt a holy sense of boldness, to help us move beyond what is to what can be.

Given the obvious overwhelming situation that COVID-19 has presented, there could be an unexpected  moment of grace to be discovered. Moments like this can become our “cannonball moment,” causing us to divert from our plans and abandon ourselves to a larger plan. This may be the time to make ourselves open, to find “creative and innovative” ways to discover new paths. Perhaps this is not just a time for Catholic school to survive, but to thrive.

Our Catholic schools have certainly opened themselves to embrace this situation and adapt to meet their vocational call. Perhaps this moment of grace is to help re-introduce the strength of the diocesan Catholic school system and the gift of faith-based education to new audiences.  Over the next months, there surely will be articles in the press highlighting the many real challenges that will face Catholic schools. It is my hope that the Diocese of Joliet can tell a different story.

With the prayers of the Catholic educators that have gone before us and with the strength and vitality that I have observed in our leaders and teachers, I believe that there is a different outcome for our Catholic schools in the Diocese of Joliet.

Prayer for Catholic School Teachers

Lord God,

your spirit of wisdom fills the earth

and teaches us your ways.

Look upon these teachers.

Let them strive to share their knowledge with gentle patience

and endeavor always to bring the truth to eager minds.

Grant that they may follow Jesus Christ,

the way, the truth, and the life,

forever and ever.


+ from Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers

Prayer for Catholic School Students

Lord our God,

in your wisdom and love

you surround us with the mysteries of the universe.

Send your Spirit upon these students

and fill them with your wisdom and blessings.

Grant that they may

devote themselves to their studies

and draw ever closer to you,

the source of all knowledge.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.


+ from Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers