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Catholic Schools—I’d Choose Them Again
Elizabeth Bookser Barkley
Source: Catholic Update
Published: Monday, January 30, 2012
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National Catholic Schools Week begins Jan. 29 this year and runs through Feb. 5.
Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in a small Midwestern city, my personal, moral and intellectual growth was shaped by two forces: my family and Catholic schools. Memories of both of these educational influences are positive and lasting. Even before Vatican II articulated the concept of parents as “the first and foremost educators of their children,” my parents assumed that role. They were helped in that task by dedicated teachers, many of them Sisters of Charity who traced their roots to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, a 19th-century leader in American Catholic education.

The culture at large and in the Catholic Church has changed dramatically in the last 50 years. There are fewer religious sisters in the United States and in Catholic schools. Many public schools offer excellent curricula, supplemented by parish religious education programs and outreach to youth. The costs of all services, including education, have shot up, straining family budgets. In this Update, we’ll take a look at Catholic schools today, and show why many parents, where Catholic schools are available and it works for the family, still choose Catholic schools for elementary and beyond.

As my children were nearing school age, my husband and I had a difficult choice: send them to the excellent public schools in our district or enroll them in our parish school, which also has a good reputation. We chose the latter. Reflecting on my children’s educational experience, my own years teaching in three archdiocesan high schools, my present position as a professor at a Catholic college and discussions with a daughter who teaches in a Catholic elementary school, I would make the same choice today.

The decision is not at all related to the “siege mentality” of some who see Catholic schools as a refuge from what a recent commencement speaker called a “poisoned culture,” a claim I do not share. Steeped in the wisdom of the Vatican II pastoral document The Church in the Modern World, I agree that the Church “goes forward with humanity and experiences the same earthly lot that the world does. She serves as a leaven and kind of soul for human society.”

Catholic schools must engage their students with the world in which they live, while at the same time helping students interpret and influence it. Catholic schools achieve these two goals because of five characteristics I have come to value.

1. Shared values

One of my best friends teaches in a suburban public school. Knowing her deep faith, her commitment to values and her academic credentials, I would put her up against any teacher I’ve known in Catholic schools, and I don’t doubt that there are many teachers in public schools like her. The difference: Staff in Catholic schools have made a commitment to embrace a common set of Catholic-Christian values. They buy into core beliefs that they bring to all their classes, not just religion classes.

Here’s how one of my friends defined the difference: “Catholic schools infuse faith into every part of the school day—religion class, math class, discipline, extracurriculars, everything. That idea was extremely attractive to me because I think Jesus should be the center of your life—not a subject you study for an hour every Tuesday night or something you only think about an hour every Sunday morning, but integrated throughout every activity.”

Christianity and the Catholic Church have always been about something larger than ourselves. Our journey toward holiness is not an isolated one; it is rooted in community. Catholic schools—their administrators, staff and other parents—are there to support children on a daily basis as they grow as students and as believers.

2. Eucharistic schools

Until she was too ill to get around much, my mother attended daily Mass at her parish and distributed the Eucharist to shut-ins. Like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, whose life and values have influenced my spirituality, my mother had a profound devotion to the Eucharist. She was one of the most Christlike people I have ever known, and I attribute some of her goodness to her love of the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is at the heart of Catholicism, as Pope John Paul II reminded us in his 2003 encyclical On the Eucharist and Its Relation to the Church: “The Church was born of the paschal mystery,” he writes. “For this very reason the Eucharist, which is in an outstanding way the sacrament of the paschal mystery, stands at the center of the Church’s life.

Simply put, Catholic schools provide opportunities to celebrate the Eucharist more often. Catholic schools integrate the celebration of the Eucharist into their curricula, scheduling all-school Masses, sometimes monthly, sometimes weekly. For children in the lower grades, the faculty and older students model appropriate behavior and reverence, so that young children gradually begin to understand the rituals and the meaning of the Mass, building upon their Sunday experiences with their families. When my children were in Catholic grade school as first-graders they looked up to their eighth-grade “buddies,” then later they became role models for new first-graders. One of their most important “jobs” was to sit next to their little buddies during school Mass; they took seriously their responsibility of being a reverent role model.

Several recent studies of teenagers have concluded that Catholic youth are not getting enough exposure to religious practices. Among the conclusions, as analyzed by Robert McCarthy, D. Min., is that “more equals more: the more they attend Mass and participate in religious programs and groups, the more they participate and engage in religious practices, but the reality is that most do not participate.”

It is at these school Masses woven into the fabric of their broader education in Catholic schools that youth can “engage in religious practices” and assume leadership roles as acolytes, gift bearers, and ministers of the Word. It is at these celebrations that they can hear interpretations of Scripture in language they can understand, and, if the celebrant is tuned into the needs of his young listeners, on themes and issues they can connect to.

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