Starting the new school year with a focus on the spirituality of the faculty and staff, as well as developing a strong Catholic school culture, served as the focus of a special “Back-to-School Retreat” on Sept. 11, 2023.
The goal of the day was to start the school year with a spiritual message by incorporating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Then the retreat pivoted to focus on creating a daily prayer life for the faculty and staff, before then looking at ways to build a stronger Catholic culture into each of the 15 Diocesan Catholic schools.
Jesuit Father John Belmonte, Diocesan Superintendent of Catholic Education, said at its heart, the retreat was a professional learning day with the rare opportunity for all faculty and staff to be together.
“We wanted to create an environment where everyone had time to reflect on the faith that we teach and to be inspired by our Bishop while ultimately perfecting our teaching craft,” Father Belmonte said.
A spiritual message was delivered by Bishop Frank J. Dewane during Mass, when he thanked the educators for following their vocation to impart their knowledge and faith upon their students.
Bishop Dewane told the educators that by following the example of Christ, they are helping their students “to live a better life. You are helping them to hear who the Lord is calling them to be. You help them to become more than they think they can. You are their inspiration.”
While each Diocesan Catholic school has experienced tremendous growth in the past three years (up 30% with more than 6,200 enrolled), the quality of the education and the spiritual aspect has also grown stronger, the Bishop noted.
“It is that spiritual aspect that I am most concerned about,” Bishop Dewane continued. “No matter whether you teach theology, science – or whatever subject – you are their introduction to Christ. It all comes down to virtues and values as you are called to live your life responsibly because your students follow your example. It is through how you teach, how you act, and how you live your lives that they find Jesus Christ. Take that role seriously. I know that you do this, and I am grateful for your choosing to serve, enhancing the Catholic schools here in the Diocese of Venice.”
Father Belmonte spoke to the educators about how they need to focus on the Mission of the Catholic schools, introducing the students to the Lord.
“This is what we are about, every day in every classroom in the Diocese of Venice, we introduce the world to our Savior,” Father continued. “Aside from the administration of the Sacraments of the Church, this is the greatest thing, in my opinion, the Church does every day. If you go into any one of our Catholic schools, you will see the mission of the Church in living color. That is why we are here.”
Father also introduced the faculty and staff to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, something they are encouraged to incorporate into their daily lives. Father Belmonte provided a handout which included the daily reflections covering 25 weeks, encompassing the remainder of the school year. The goal was to enable the staff and faculty to promote their daily prayer life in an easy and straightforward way.
During the presentation, Father included responses from students at the different schools to a homework assignment he gave them: What advice do you have for your teacher as he or she goes on retreat? And the responses were entertaining and insightful. The message Father found most profound was the simplest: “Do good,” something he said all educators are called to do each day. “If they can do that, they will be able to impact students in a meaningful and overwhelmingly positive way.”
The day concluded with a presentation by Elisabeth Sullivan, Executive Director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. The institute inspires and equips Catholic educators to renew today’s Catholic schools by drawing on the Church’s tradition of education, which allows teachers and students the joyful pursuit of faith, wisdom, and virtue.
Sullivan shared the success of 225 different schools who have incorporated a Catholic classical liberal arts education when “Catholic identity” is not just added on, but is instead woven through the school culture, curriculum, content, and pedagogy.
Schools which have incorporated this approach are emerging as engines for evangelization in the Church, by integrating faith, culture, and life.
Beginning with the 2023-2024 Academic Year, Incarnation Catholic School in Sarasota began to implement this program. In a letter to parents, it was explained that this new classical approach will educate students in a way that combines Catholic faith with academic excellence and help students become more aware of the transcendent realities of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. This begins a new chapter to better prepare the students to pursue excellence while growing in faith, knowledge, and love. Donahue Academy of Ave Maria Catholic School in Ave Maria has used this classical approach since its founding.
The retreat also included a special recognition of Mike Gill, a teacher at Bishop Verot Catholic High School for the past 52 years. Bishop Dewane presented Gill with a special legacy award for his commitment to Catholic schools.
Also recognized were the teachers who are new to education and new to teaching in Catholic schools.