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Seeing Angels in Marble: Catholic School Leadership

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” At our retreat for Partnership school leaders last week, Christian Dallavis kicked off one of our work sessions with this idea from Michelangelo.

Christian’s talk centered on one question—How does our Catholic worldview inform our understanding of educational leadership?—and it ranged nimbly over two thousand years of Catholic thought, with a few references to superhero movies and the St. Louis Cardinals sprinkled in for good measure—all of it anchored in the idea of Michelangelo’s angels.

For school leaders, this month is such a busy time of preparation; yet our lengthy to-do lists are precisely why it is worth taking a minute to reflect with Christian about what it means to see angels in marble and to set them free.

First and foremost, it means leaders are called to see—to have a clear mental model, a compelling sense of what we are working toward.

Michelangelo’s “The Atlas Slave,” an incomplete sculpture. This image is from The Accademia, the gallery in Florence where the statue can be found.

Too often, school leaders spend their days not on the lookout for angels, but on a hunt for solutions to problems. Implementing COVID protocols in the cultural contexts of our schools, strategizing about curricula and pedagogy to help all students flourish, timing when the floors will be waxed for the first day of orientation—the to-do lists of educational leaders have definitely not gotten any shorter in recent months, and it is as tempting as ever to be reactive.

Just like Michelangelo, we must problem-solve; every block of marble has its own idiosyncrasies that a sculptor must manage to bring his vision to fruition. But if we are working toward a mental model—rather than just chipping away at the rock before us—then problem solving becomes part of the creative act, rather than a drag on it. Like sculptors, school leaders must constantly step in and then step back, to remind ourselves of the whole picture that each of our actions can aim for.

That’s part of why we went on retreat last week—because holding the to-do lists at bay long enough to reflect on the big picture that should drive them can be a real challenge.

We didn’t just reflect on having any old big picture for our schools, though. A Catholic vision for school leaders is an invitation to one-up Michaelangelo, even, because while he saw angels in marble, we are invited to see something grander: nothing less than the face of God, in our students and our communities.

This invitation comes from the central fact of our faith. Catholics believe God became human, and even after the resurrection, the world remains shot through with holiness that transcends and transforms the stuff of everyday life. When we celebrate sacraments like the Eucharist, we celebrate what the catechism calls “actions of the Holy Spirit at work” in the Church and the world. As Fr. Lou Delfra, CSC, and the other authors of “Education in a Catholic Key” explain, “Catholic education is thus “sacramental,” not only because it entails the celebration of sacraments, but because the sacraments remind us of the reality of God’s presence in all things.” This recognition of the divine is in all things “is meant to transform every single dimension of a school.”

To believe God is present in each student and in our time together transforms each moment in a school into a quest—not just for compliance but for the routines and strategies that enable the divine gifts of each of us to shine through; not just for knowledge and proficiency, but for the truth and beauty that can reveal themselves through learning, every bit as wonderfully as Michelangelo’s angels emerged from marble.

The grandness of that picture—of students and school days manifesting their full God-given potential—compels us to search for tools and practices to bring them about. After all, Michelangelo didn’t just have an imagination capable of seeing an angel in marble that others couldn’t see yet; he had the skill and the tools to bring it into being, so others can see it too. Each lesson, school routine, parent call, and student interaction is our marble.

To have the mental model of what we are striving for illuminated by the presence of the divine in all things—and to hone our craft each day so that more and more of that light shines through our students and our communities—that is the work of Catholic school leaders.

May God bless us all in that labor this fall.