The following is adapted from a talk given by Rocky Domingo, principal at St. Andrew Catholic School in Pasadena, at “Catholics at Work” Nov. 21, 2018.
This week, as we celebrate Catholic Schools Week, offers us an opportunity to ask, “What makes a school Catholic?”
Many of us are products of Catholic education — perhaps elementary, high school, college, or a combination of all of those. No matter what stands out in your memory, there is something that unites everyone who attended Catholic schools. What is that?
When my son was 3 years old, he attended Hayden Preschool in Duarte with the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart. He came home at the end of the day singing songs about Mary and the saints. He brought home coloring pages of every feast day. It was great! But, those “incidentals” are not necessarily what made his education there “Catholic.”
Instead, his days were imbued with an incarnational understanding of the world. The sisters modeled a life lived with the understanding that our world is redeemed and points us to Christ; that what he experiences with his senses is only part of the story; and that he is constantly accompanied by our Lord, his Blessed Mother, and a whole host of angels and saints.
This worldview colored every class activity, interactions on the playground, and, yes, the times that they prayed and attended Mass.
But, not every Catholic school today is run by sisters!
It is more important now than ever that Catholic schools, to be authentic, must hire for mission — that is, hire teachers and administrators who share and can model an incarnational worldview, an understanding of the paschal mystery, a sense of who we are and what we are made for.
And, teachers and administrators must realize that this is their most essential task. I always like to say, “You can learn geometry anywhere.” A teacher doesn’t really care if his or her students “assent” to geometry, if they accept the reality of geometry and create a life around geometry.
Religion teachers, which means every single teacher in an elementary school, are very different. What they are teaching is not just an academic subject, although it certainly is that. They are teaching an entire worldview, a way of living, a vision of the world that is in stark contrast to the way the world presents itself to us through most other media.
But, this is not just limited to religion teachers. Every teacher in a Catholic school should support the Catholic faith and the vision of the world that it reveals. Teachers are meant to be models of a lived faith for students, and also for their families and the extended community.
Only when a school is working in concert, with the reality of the paschal mystery at its center, can it be considered a truly Catholic school.
So why is such an education so important to the life of the Church today?
It is no secret that our nation and our world are becoming increasingly more hostile to people of faith. The concept of tolerance is now barely holding on. We see outright hostility toward people with differing viewpoints, and attempts to encourage lives of virtue often get shouted down.
Into this milieu we send our children, praying that they will be steadfast in their faith and in their devotion. They will need to be able to stand against the tide and be leaders for the common good, and Catholic education should prepare them for this task.
Schools that chase after trendy perceptions of excellence and try to compete with the programming of the local public schools to the detriment of their Catholic identity are doomed to fail. Catholic identity must come first, and it is from that that excellence will naturally flow, as a manifestation of an authentic understanding of the human person.
Catholic schools should always welcome students at any point in their education. However, we see the greatest benefit for those students, and their families, who have been part of Catholic education from beginning to end.
So, what are those benefits?
Studies support our own experience. Graduates of our Catholic schools go on to be more active in their parishes. Girls and boys who attend Catholic school are more likely to pray daily, attend church more often, retain a Catholic identity as adults, and even answer the call to a religious vocation.
Catholic Schools tend to produce graduates who are more civically engaged, more tolerant of diverse views, and more committed to service as adults. Millennials who attend Catholic schools are eight times more likely to regularly attend Mass as adults.
Supporting Catholic education is not only for families with young children, or more specifically, families of means with young children. Rather, it is the responsibility of anyone who cares about the future of our Church to support and advocate for Catholic education.
Supporting Catholic education is a matter of social justice. Unlike our constricting public schools, Catholic schools have a great deal of latitude to embrace the arts, music and PE, field trips and service — disciplines long discarded by public schools in our state.
At schools like St. Andrew, for example, students are learning about the reality of foster care through our partnership with a local foster care agency, Olivecrest. They participate in a pajama drive and hear firsthand from foster care professionals about the lives of kids in the child welfare system.
As a result, a group of our school families are part of a parish team bringing Safe Families to St. Andrew, a ministry that provides support to at-risk families, most of which are single moms with kids under the age of 5.
Catholic schools are impacting our communities. Still, we only educate a sliver of Catholic young people — just about 10 percent of the children in our parishes. What about those other 90 percent?
For some families, the financial burden of Catholic school is too much. But, for many, Catholic education is just not a priority because they have never been invited to understand what Catholic schools do for children, for families, and for the community.
Sending your kids to Catholic school is not always easy. A lot is asked of Catholic school parents — not just tuition but service hours and extra activities.
But it is worth it: To know that my sons are going to school with the kids we sit next to at Mass on Sundays; that they are participating in Respect Life Week and May Crownings; that they will emerge from these schools, and yes, from our family home, strong in the knowledge that they are beloved sons of God, made for a great vocation here on earth and eternal life beyond.
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