For Father Stefano Penna, Catholic education is essential to his identity.
After more than three decades as a professor and administrator at Catholic colleges in Edmonton, he’s now ministering to school trustees in their efforts to promote Catholic education across Canada.
“I’m a product of Catholic education and it’s the anchor of my life, and it’s a joy,” said Penna, who was appointed chaplain of the Canadian Catholic School Trustees’ Association earlier this year.
The CCSTA represents more than 90 Catholic school boards that educate 850,000 students.
“It’s going to allow me to support a remarkable group of people, people who are entrusted with the oversight of this wonderful reality of Catholic education — namely, the trustees of Canada.”
Born and ordained in Saskatoon, he’s returning to that city in August this year.
Penna had been “on loan” to the Edmonton Archdiocese since 2002. He was a professor — and later administrator — at St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta and Newman Theological College, where he was the director of the Benedict XVI Institute for New Evangelization.
As the new CCSTA chaplain, Penna helps trustees adhere to Catholic values, education and policy.
“If a question comes up and someone’s a bit concerned about where to head with a particular item, he’s the sounding board that we would use,” said Julien Hanlon, executive director of the CCSTA.
Penna’s appointment comes at a time when critics of Catholic education in Alberta continue to call for a single publicly funded school system. They argue that a dual system is too costly for taxpayers.
Penna said the debate over religious education is as old as Canada itself.
“In Western Canada, Catholic education has always faced calls for its abolition,” he said.
“Canada is Canada because (we) were able to figure out religious education and educational rights. People think that’s just ancient history … (but) we have always faced opposition.”
Penna said the CCSTA has supported Catholic education at the national level, including appealing a decision in the landmark Theodore case, in which the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench ruled that non-Catholic students could not be funded to attend Catholic schools in the province.
The CCSTA was also granted intervenor status in the ongoing Trinity Western University case.
The Christian university is appealing a decision by the Law Society of British Columbia after it refused to accredit Trinity’s new law school over the school’s “community covenant” — which requires students to refrain from sex outside of traditional marriage.
Trinity Western, and intervenors like the CCSTA, argue that the covenant is an expression of religious freedom. A decision is expected from the Supreme Court in the next several months.
Penna says as chaplain he can help equip school trustees with prayer and guidance to face future challenges like the Theodore case — which can have an impact on Catholic education across Canada.
“What affects someone in Ontario affects us. (And) the Theodore case has implications in Ontario. So we have to have our ducks in a row,” Penna said. “It’s not going to be easy.”