You know who knows who they are? Amazon. The undisputed No. 1 customer-service organization in the world. That’s it. Amazon executives are evaluated on customer-service goals, not share price. That’s a big reason the company’s value topped $1 trillion in September.
But 21st-century Amazon is really just an iteration of another trailblazing, dynamic company: 19th-century Sears. And where is Sears now? Jeff Bezos believes the greatest threat to Amazon’s identity, and thus to its future, is “resting on our laurels.”
Every organization, regardless of age or strength, is challenged by identity-threat. That includes our Catholic schools, even those in the Northwest that date back to the 19th century and the ones with strong balance sheets and robust enrollment. All of our schools are susceptible to drifting from their Catholic moorings, and it can be, to borrow from C.S. Lewis, “the subtlest of snares.”
For Amazon, that snare may be complacency. For Catholic schools, it’s the allure of becoming de facto private schools. I get the attraction. Being private instead of faith-based opens up, for example, a new world of fundraising possibilities. (Most foundations in Seattle, for example, would never give to a religious school.) And going private also sheds a lot of ugly historical baggage (crusades, intolerance, abuse crisis, etc.). But something else is shed too: identity.
Take the example of Harvard. Its original seal, adopted in 1692, included the words Christ and Church and three open books. The top two books were face-up; the bottom book faced down. The face-up books represented what could be learned through reason. The face-down book symbolized that not all could be known that way: Truth must also be discovered outside human reason, through God’s revelation.
When Harvard dropped faith and became secular, it also dropped Christ and Church from its seal; only Veritas (Truth) remains. Even more interesting, however, was that the face-down book was turned up. No need to look to God — humans have access to all truth through their reasoning.
The words and symbols were removed to reflect the removal of God from Harvard’s identity. But what replaced that identity isn’t clear. It certainly can’t be divined from Harvard’s current mission statement, an accumulation of meandering statements that point nowhere, the likely result of committee-think designed to please all while discomfiting none. Turns out that truth is indeed elusive, especially if we mistakenly believe it can only be found within ourselves.
That devolution might happen differently at Catholic schools, but the basic pattern would look the same. Recently, for example, a Catholic school in Marin County, California, decided to “soften” its Catholic identity by limiting references to Catholicism in publications and removing many of the statues of saints and Jesus from its grounds. This was done in order to avoid alienating non-Catholic students and to create a more inclusive environment.
Right goal, wrong remedy. It’s true that through much of its history, Catholic has been identified with prejudice and exclusion. Those times, however, represent a bastardization of Catholic identity. We ought to reassert the true identity. Double down on the Gospel message. That’s the best antidote for a school afflicted by alienation and isolation. And you won’t find a better foundation for a welcoming, nonjudgmental and caring school culture than Jesus.
Yet it’s that very J word that Catholic schools often struggle to proclaim out loud. It can sound so parochial and even, heaven forbid, evangelical. For Catholic schools, however, the identification with Jesus is the best way to combat identity-threat.
For those of us at Jesuit schools, that means keeping a firm foothold in our Ignatian charism. St. Ignatius and his early companions weren’t embarrassed to be identified with Jesus. The centrality of Jesus is reflected in the Jesuit seal: “IHS” — Greek letters for Jesus. That identity was recently reaffirmed in a clear, concise statement from the worldwide gathering of the Society of Jesus: “We are one body, bound together in and with Christ.”
It’s that identification with Jesus, and the example he set, that compelled the early Jesuits to “help souls” — the destitute, prostitutes, unwed mothers and their babies. And it is Christ-identity that should inspire us to do the same for all those souls who need our help these days, especially the poor, alienated and unwanted. It’s an invitation to a very diverse table, the only prerequisite being the desire to sit with Jesus.
Sacrificing Jesus is never worth it, even for the best of intentions.
Here’s one truth: Catholic schools exist because of Jesus. That’s why, for example, “IHS” is embedded in the walkway at the center of our campus. Lines flow into it and out from it. Those who walk upon it may carry various faith traditions within them, but it is always Jesus who grounds the work itself, inviting all in and sending all forth. Catholic schools that forget that truth, and try to be all things for all people, end up becoming nothing.
Kent Hickey is the president of Seattle Preparatory School. A version of this column originally appeared in the school’s Panther Tracks magazine.
Let your Catholic voice be heard
Northwest Catholic - January/February 2019