What makes a school
a 'Catholic school'?
Michael C. Barber, SJ
It's back-to-school time, and I've been going around visiting our Catholic schools: De La Salle last week, Bishop O'Dowd this week, St. Martin de Porres, St. Edward's and All Saints coming up.
I'm also looking forward to the Mass in the cathedral on Sept. 26 for 500-plus Eighth Grade students from the diocese. Kids, ask your teacher and your principal if your class can come.
What makes a school a Catholic school? I had the chance to reflect on this recently with the principals and presidents of all our elementary and secondary schools.
I saw an advertising banner once over the front door of a supermarket that struck home: "Good Shepherd Lutheran School — for a Christ-Centered Education." I liked that! All students in our Catholic schools should be drawn into an encounter with Jesus Christ and His body, the Church.
How do we encounter Jesus in our schools?
1. In the person of the teacher, staff member or coach. One of Cardinal Newman's most famous sermons was called "Personal Influence — the Means of Propagating the Truth." I saw this in the Marine Corps when a young corporal came to me and said he wanted to become a Catholic. I said I'll give you a book with our teachings and then you can decide if you want to join. He said: "I don't need a book. I want to have the religion that you and the colonel have." (The colonel — who happened to be Catholic — had taken the young man into his own home to recover from cancer surgery, as the young Marine's parents had disowned him.) Students should be able to encounter Christ in everyone working in a Catholic school.
2. Through instruction in the teachings of the Catholic faith. A freshman at Oxford University wrote a piece in the English journal The Tablet complaining that after 12 years of Catholic education, she could not answer her college companions when questioned as to what the Church taught. She had received an excellent education in English, science, history ... but her religious education was dumbed down to "share your toys," "be nice," etc. She was looking for content and got fluff.
Our students deserve to know what the Church teaches and why. Only then will they have a basis on how to make their own act of Faith. We also need to educate our students to the beauty of the Faith: through icons, art, architecture and sacred music. These, in addition to scripture and tradition, are also vehicles of revelation.
3. Through community. Good friendships that last a lifetime are a gift from God and communicate His love. Remember in 2010 when Gunnar Sandberg, a pitcher on the Marin Catholic High School baseball team was hit in the head by a line drive? He went into a coma. The community instantly came alive: The student body held a candlelight prayer vigil for him outside his hospital room. The students spontaneously went to the school chapel at lunchtime to pray the rosary for his recovery. Christ was in the community at that school, uniting the students to their classmate, and to Christ Himself.
4. Through service to the poor and disadvantaged. Many of our schools and confirmation programs require community service. This is great. Not only do our kids experience Christ's love and mercy flowing through them to a person in need, but the students often say they get back more than they gave. Cardinal Newman said, "The essence of Faith is to look out of yourself." Bingo.
5. Through the Sacrifice of the Mass and the sacraments of the Church. This probably should have been at the top of the list. By making a good confession and receiving Holy Communion our students experience Christ in a privileged way. I salute our campus ministry teams who lead students to Christ through the sacraments — especially through their excellent retreat programs. This experience of Christ in the Mass is obviously meant to continue throughout a student's lifetime through participation in the parish.
These are other excellent things our Catholic schools do for youth and the community at large — especially our inner city Catholic schools. But giving our kids a Christ-centered education should be No. 1 on the list.
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