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Hospitality and Catholic schools

September 11, 2015
Melanie Morey

The academic year has just begun in the Archdiocese of San Francisco and once again Catholic schools have opened their doors and put out the welcome mat. It is that wonderful time of year when all involved in the schools get a fresh start in realizing all the promise inherent in the mission of Catholic education.

For much of their history in the U.S., Catholic schools were all about Catholics. They were staffed by Catholics, mostly nuns, brothers and priests, and they served Catholic students. In the days before the Second Vatican Council non-Catholics rarely taught in Catholic schools and few non-Catholic parents were either interested in or inclined to enroll their children in them. But in the 1960s, things started to change. In his 1965 declaration on Christian education, “Gravissimum Educationis,” Pope Paul VI made clear that “the Church considers very dear to her heart those Catholic schools which are attended also by students who are not Catholic.”

Today’s Catholic schools operate in a pluralistic and secularized world and they reflect that reality. Catholic, non-Catholic, and not-so-Catholic teachers, administrators, staff and students are valued members of Catholic school communities, respected for who they are and what they bring to the community and the educational enterprise.

At the same time that Catholic schools warmly welcome all comers, they also are responsible for maintaining a clear identity. At times these can seem like contradictory impulses, but, in order to be vibrant, true to their nature, and able to fulfill their mission, Catholic schools today must be able to be both. And the good way to go about doing that is for the schools to wholeheartedly adopt the scriptural tradition of hospitality.

In her 2013 essay “The Role of Charism and Hospitality in the Academy,” Providence College theology professor, Aurelie Hagstrom, reminds us that as the people of God the Israelites had a responsibility to care for strangers in their midst. After all, they were themselves strangers and sojourners and God cared for them. Hospitality was a demand of Israel’s covenant relationship with God.

In the New Testament the tradition of hospitality was developed and took on new dimensions. Through the Incarnation the person of Jesus Christ is both guest and host, dependent on hospitality and also universally welcoming. And hospitality is most profoundly witnessed and expressed when Jesus draws his apostles into table fellowship. Here, in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the wine Jesus is both the host and the meal itself. And in the earliest days of the Church Christ’s followers were exhorted to “practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another” (Peter 4:9).

Hospitality is something almost everyone understands. We know what it looks like with its complementary dual roles of host and guest. We are familiar with the boundaries and the expansiveness that are hallmarks of each. Most of us have some experience in each role and can recognize when the right balance is struck between the something special that guests bring to an experience and the importance of their being comfortably able to “fit in.”

Gracious hosts respect their guests and treat them as equals. They make them feel comfortable and appreciated and they anticipate and try to meet their needs. Gracious guests complement their hosts, respect their ways of doing things, receive their efforts warmly and gratefully, and extend themselves by making positive contributions.

In a Catholic school the Catholic Church is the host and she extends a warm invitation to others to come and participate in and contribute to its educational mission. Catholic schools are called to be welcoming. They also are called to be faithful to their Catholic identity and character. If they embody hospitality in the fullness of its meaning, they are poised to succeed at both.

Morey is director of the Office of Catholic Identity Assessment and Formation for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

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