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CATHOLIC SCHOOLS AT THE SERVICE OF SOCIETY (VI) – New Directions of Catholic schools, from Religious to Lay Leadership

admin / April 12, 2019

– Fr Leonard E. Dollentas

At 70, Brother Michael, a member of a Catholic congregation of teaching Brothers is the youngest in his community of five religious brothers running a high school in one of the countries in Asia.

Brother Michael says he is so worried about being the youngest Brother in his community since for the past 10 years they have not had any professed religious in their congregation. There has been an alarming decline of vocations in their congregation, and he feared that their presence in the school may well be nearing an end.

“In our province, we don’t have as well younger aspirants joining us,” he said, “and with the other members being too old and should be retiring, they are handing over a number of school administrative posts to lay teachers who are capable.” Religious men and women in the education ministry throughout the world find themselves facing the same level of new challenges to their apostolic missions.

Undeniably, in the past years, not only in Southeast Asia but also in most of the developed world, religious vocations have plummeted. This phenomenon was described in a statistical data of the Vatican Statistical office:

“The group of professed men religious other than priests constitutes a group in decline globally: from 54,665 individuals in 2010 to 54,229 in 2015… Women religious constitute a population with a certain consistency: in 2015 they exceed by 61% the number of priests worldwide and are currently in clear decline. At a global level, they have decreased in number from 721,935 in 2010 to 670,320 in 2015, a relative diminution of 7.1%.” (The Pontifical Yearbook 2017 and the “Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae” 2015, 06.04.2017)


Responding to the missionary needs of the church worldwide, religious missionary women and religious priests and Brothers provided mostly the backbone of the parochial schools and the Catholic school system in Southeast Asia, building the foundations of its establishment and allowing them to flourish through their generous and sacrificial apostolate. They have provided a sound religious and academic education to Asians, especially for the children of Catholic immigrants.

In its documents, the Holy See frequently extols the specific contribution made by religious to the Church’s educational apostolate: “Because of their special consecration, their particular experience of the gifts of the Spirit, their constant listening to the word of God, their practice of discernment, their rich heritage of pedagogical traditions built up since the establishment of their Institute, and their profound grasp of spiritual truth (cf. Eph. 2:17), consecrated persons are able to be especially effective in educational activities and to offer a specific contribution to the work of other educators.” Certainly, for generations, the presence of religious in most parochial and Catholic schools have served as a built-in guarantee of their Catholic identity.


After Vatican II, there have been a steady decline in the number of religious and priests who are administrators and teachers of Catholic schools, and an increase in the number of laypersons who fill those positions. The Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education reported in 1977: “Some problems arise from the fact that certain Religious Institutes, founded for the school apostolate, have subsequently abandoned school work because of social or political changes and have involved themselves in other activities. In some cases, they have given up their schools as a result of their efforts to adapt their lives and mission to the recommendations of the Second Vatican Council and to the spirit of their original foundation” (No. 74 – The Catholic School). They focused more their services to the Church as missionaries to the utmost and abandoned parts of the world, where the poor suffer the most. Reaching out and ministering to the needs of the people – the poor, the abused women, the marginalized and the human response to the degradation of ecosystems and God’s creation. Hence, today, in most Catholic schools the administration is being sustained by lay people. For some others who retained their direction, religious women constitute less than 4 percent of the full-time professional staff holding key positions. Consequently, 95 percent of the teachers are laypersons.

The shift to lay leadership in Catholic schools, which has followed from the shortage of religious, presents its own set of challenges. In filling those posts and assuming positions from the religious, because of the decline of the latter, it should be made clear that this is in no way suggesting that the laity are second class educators.  The laity has a especial place in the life and missions of the church.  We have to recognize that they, too, have a “supernatural vocation” as educators. To continue a certain apostolic work in the church is a responsibility and presents a new opportunity for the Church, one full of promise and hope. The Congregation for Catholic Education assured us: “Just as a consecrated person is called to testify his or her specific vocation to a life of communion in love so as to be in the scholastic community a sign, a memorial and a prophecy of the values of the Gospel, so too a lay educator is required to exercise a specific mission within the Church by living, in faith, a secular vocation in the communitarian structure of the school” (No. 15, Educating Together in Catholic Schools, A Shared Mission Between Consecrated Persons and The Lay Faithful, Rome, September 8, 2007)


To be effective bearers of the Church’s educational tradition, however, laypersons who teach in Catholic schools need a “religious formation that is equal to their general, cultural, and, most especially, professional formation.” Such formation should be available to them and should be a requirement for those who are already in the Catholic school system, and those preparing to enter it:

“It should be emphasized that the special contribution that lay educators can bring to the formational journey derives precisely from their secular nature that makes them especially able to grasp ‘the signs of the times.’ In fact, by living their faith in the everyday conditions of their families and society, they can help the entire educational community to distinguish more precisely the evangelical values and the opposite values that these signs contain” (No. 31 Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating Together in Catholic Schools, A Shared Mission Between Consecrated Persons and The Lay Faithful, Rome, September 8, 2007)

In this regard, Catholic universities have a special responsibility to assist Catholic schools by providing teacher training courses and programs for Catholic school teachers.

Some Catholic teachers add to their educational apostolate the charism of a particular religious institution. This may involve some amount of specific spirituality or approach to pedagogy. For example, the Benedictine educational approach or the Salesian pedagogy. This is highly commendable. But more important than handing on elements of a particular charism to the laity is safeguarding and promoting the schools’ Catholic identity. We should not forget that a school is first Catholic before it can be molded according to the specific charism of a religious institute.

The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council insists that “lay people have their own proper competence in the building up of the Church.” The lay faithful have their own charism of teaching, independent of the charism of a particular religious congregation.

Following the trend being experienced in some religious communities today, in the future, a number of religious communities might be composed of members all very old and retired. But I do still hope that with God’s grace, they may flourish once again. What we do know, however, is that the Church herself will survive and she must have schools that are recognizably Catholic.

(Fr Leonard E. Dollentas is a Filipino diocesan priest and a missionary in the Diocese of Macao. He holds a doctor’s degree in education and has held academic and school administrative positions in the Philippines before coming to Macau. He teaches at the University of St Joseph’s School of Education)