When I wake up early in the morning while it is still dark, I enjoy looking out my window at the church's stained glass windows. The lights in the church illuminate the windows so that from my room, I have a host of Christian mysteries upon which to meditate. One of the windows that faces my room is that of Jesus teaching the little children. It is a good reminder to me that one of the serious obligations of a pastor is to bring children closer to Jesus.
The other day, I was passing through the school yard of my parish school as I was making my way back to the rectory. One of the teachers stopped to tell me how he had brought one of his classes over to the adoration chapel at the church earlier in the week for some time before the Blessed Sacrament. He said that another teacher had done the same thing that week and that he would be bringing another class over later in the week. Without knowing it, he made my day.
Sometimes when we advertise our school, we remind people that we have great technology, high scores in national testing, and good moral formation. But you know, that's not why I want to be in the school business. I'm sure that there are many public and private schools who have great technology, high scores in testing, and who provide good character formation. What is different about a Catholic school?
It has to be Jesus Christ. The children going to my school are talking about Christ, praying to Christ, and learning to follow Christ. They are taking a break in the middle of their day to go and spend time adoring the Eucharist. They will all be coming over to church in the next few days to receive the Sacrament of Penance. Do all of their families come to Mass on Sundays? No, not yet. But, most do. I see them here on Sundays. They are an important part of the parish life.
Frankly, I think a school would be far too burdensome on a parish's life unless we were convinced that it were really an effective tool for evangelization and that we were drawing these children closer to Christ. A Catholic school should firstly be about the community helping parents raise their children in the Catholic Faith. Plenty of schools can help students test well. Plenty of schools can help students learn how to be kind to others. And these are important tasks. But, a Catholic school has the unique opportunity to form young people in the Christian life. A Catholic school has the opportunity to bring children in the middle of the day to pray before the Eucharist, receive the Sacrament of Penance, or to attend Mass.
A Catholic school isn't just about the parents and the students. Catholic schools ought to be part of the mission of the parish. As such, all Catholic parents ought to be encouraged to send their children to Catholic school and the Catholic community ought to help make that possible. To the best of our ability, Catholic schools ought not be a place only for the wealthy but for anyone who wants help in raising their children in the Faith. There are certain things that members of the whole community could do to help Catholic schools advance the mission of the Church:
Bishops and priests could strengthen the Catholic identity of schools and encourage Catholics to send their children to Catholic schools. Additionally, major fundraising efforts for Catholic schools ought to prioritize helping Catholic families send their children to Catholic schools.
Catholic parents--especially those for whom the faith is important--ought to send their children to Catholic schools. The way for Catholic schools to be strengthened in their Catholic identity is for strong Catholic families to send their children to those schools.
Catholic school administrators and teachers ought continually to deepen their knowledge and practice of the Faith.
Parishioners ought to see Catholic education as not simply a "choice" that some parents make for their children, but rather as an opportunity to help children draw closer to Christ through a solid Catholic education.
The difference has to be Christ. Yes, we should excel in Math, Science, History, and Languages. But, the difference has to be Christ. I once served with a priest who would remark, "My main goal in having a Catholic school is not to get the children into Harvard. The goal is to get them into heaven." In many ways, as Faith has declined, Catholic schools have not met that decline with a more robust proclamation of the Faith. Instead, many Catholic schools have been inclined to hide their Catholic identity in order to blend in with other schools. Pope Benedict XVI has declared next year to be the "Year of Faith." It provides to all Catholic institutions, parishes, and dioceses the opportunity to remember who we are and what makes us different: FAITH.
If you entered our school--St. Mary School in Beverly--you'd see smartboards, a science lab, a computer lab, a library etc. My guess is that you'd find that in most other schools as well. You would hear teachers telling children that you should respect others and be kind. I suspect that you would find that in most other schools as well. If that is all that Catholic schools have to offer, then we should get out of the business. But the fact is we have something much greater to offer. We have Jesus Christ! We have the capacity to teach these children that they are made in the image and likeness of God, that they are loved so much that Christ died for them, and that they are called to eternal life.
Last week, three grades of school children spent time with Jesus in the Eucharist. This coming week, all of the grades will receive the Sacrament of Penance, meeting Jesus in his mercy. That's why Catholic schools were founded. That's why they are important. Jesus said, "Let the children come to me." A Catholic School should make that happen.