By: Elizabeth Bookser Barkley
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.
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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.
3. Learning the Catholic story
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I was struck by a scene in a movie I saw recently where the fictional character from a university was explaining a detail from the history of the Church to Catholics he was working with. He noted with a smile that he knew more about their Church than they did. That’s like having a friend tell you all about the grandfather or cousin you’re related to, but know little about.
As a teacher of college students over the past decades, I know that many young people have little grasp of the history of the Catholic Church, or of the historical origin of many Church practices. But many tell me that they hope to have children and raise them in the Catholic faith.
How much does this generation of parents really know about our Catholic “family tree”? I suspect many would answer, “Not much.” Although Sunday homilies occasionally refer to events of the past, there’s only so much history that can fit into 10 or 15 minutes, especially since most homilists rightly try to connect Sunday readings to the daily lives of their congregants.
But knowing our collective history is important if we are to understand the Church today. You can’t open a world or European history book without the Catholic Church inserting itself into almost every century: the origins of the papacy, the role of monasteries in preserving culture, art in Catholic spaces and the very spaces themselves, the philosophical impact of the likes of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, or the influence of papal encyclicals on historical or modern thought.
Some of Church history is nothing to boast of, but as George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” More importantly, there is much we can be proud of and can celebrate as we remember. Catholic schools are places where teachers and students can break open and digest that history, acknowledging the beauty as well as the blemishes.
4. Applying faith to the world
When Pope Benedict XVI released his encyclical Charity in Truth in 2009 about many issues—including the global economic crisis, food security and the environment—it made headlines around the world. Over the years a dozen American presidents have met with the reigning pope, and the world took note, because of the political and spiritual influence each leader brings to such meetings. The Church has been described as mater et magistra, Latin words for “mother and teacher.” In a world where news is sometimes limited to one-minute packages on television or headline messages delivered to computers, where will the next generation of Catholic leaders learn about the teachings and vision of today’s Church? Catholic schools would be one option.
Although most grade school children might not know the term encyclical (an in-depth papal teaching), they are fully infused with a set of values that can guide them as they interact with the larger culture: Catholic social teaching. Children in Catholic schools would be hard-pressed to articulate the whole body of teaching, but they imbibe core principles on a daily basis: the sanctity of marriage and the family, the sacredness of all life, a responsibility toward the poor, or the duty to care for the earth.
Certainly public schools intentionally promote care for the environment and service to the community, but children in Catholic schools are consistently exposed to a core of principles that gives a moral framework for dealing with contemporary issues and tensions. As one parent of Catholic schoolchildren told me, her family values Catholic schools because of “the integration of mission, faith and social justice into the curriculum.”
5. Reason and faith
Leafing through news magazines or scanning book titles on a library shelf over the past few years, you could easily be convinced that religion and science, faith and reason are incompatible. That misconception has circulated for centuries, but Catholic thinkers and theologians as far back as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas have always taught that there is no discrepancy between the two. The late Pope John Paul II understood that “reason and faith cannot be separated without diminishing the capacity of men and women to know themselves, the world and God in an appropriate way.”
In an era when some fundamentalist Christians are rejecting science and reason, especially in their attacks on evolution, Catholic schools are places where students learn that being scientifically “literate” is a necessity. According to the National Catholic Educational Association, one of the reasons parents choose Catholic schools is the reputation for high academic standards. As one parent told me, Catholic schools raise the bar and demand excellence in academics.
I have no data to support that claim, but even if it were universally true that Catholic schools are academically more rigorous than public schools, high academic standards would not be enough to convince me to pay tuition when I could send my children to a school supported by my property taxes.
Add growth in faith to growth in intellectual development, and I see a recipe for wholeness. Psychologists have various ways of describing the moral or faith development of children into adulthood. Although the stages and labels vary, these experts tell us that children mimic their parents’ beliefs in early years, then as they become more independent, they struggle to redefine their own values and morals that will lay the foundation for adult life.
Just as children try on intellectual identities—one day mimicking the style of a favorite poet, the next quoting lines from a trendy movie—as they grow they also try on “faith identities” when they confront crucial questions of life and death. What better place than a Catholic school for students to confront these questions in an environment where they can feel safe to experience the questions and doubts that lead to a mature faith?
Life is not just about facts, data and accumulation of knowledge. Life is also about mystery, wonder, awe...faith. Catholic schools equip their graduates to live in a complex world, with the intellectual tools to navigate its intricacies, as well as the faith that, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI to students, “enables people to look to the future with hope” (address to university students, July 11, 2009).
As a Catholic parent and educator, I know that not every Catholic school fulfills the high expectations I have for them to demonstrate these five traits I admire and value. But they all have the capacity to do so. If “Christ is the reason” for our Catholic schools, as signs in many Catholic school buildings proclaim, parents and parishioners whose money supports these schools need to hold our Catholic schools accountable for living out their missions.
Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C., in a 2008 pastoral letter, challenged clergy, religious and laity in his archdiocese to make Catholic schools affordable and accessible to more families. His was a challenge to the Church to provide more institutions to strengthen Catholic education. Our challenge in the parishes is to support our Catholic schools, whether financially, through volunteer work or, when possible, by making a Catholic-school choice for our children. That way the gems that are our Catholic schools can touch the lives of more children, who are the future of the American Catholic Church.
Elizabeth Bookser Barkley
, a freelance writer, is a professor of English at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio. She contributes to a variety of Catholic publications. Her latest book is When You Are a Godparent (St. Anthony Messenger Press).
NEXT: Day-by-Day Through Advent (by Kathy Coffey)