As educators and students around the country prepare for Catholic Schools Week, a friar with nearly 28 years of experience in Catholic education, writes about the ways Catholic schools strengthen faith, knowledge and service, and prepare students for success after graduation.
Many years ago, when I was a student at The Catholic University of America in Washington, I embarked on a career in Catholic education. I did a semester of student teaching at a Catholic high school in Montgomery County, Md. At the same time, I was involved in youth ministry at a Catholic parish in the same county.
Montgomery County had one of the finest public school systems in the nation. I recall a parent asking me why she should invest in a Catholic high school education for her son when the public schools were providing an exemplary education. My reply was simple. I noted that it’s true the quality of education and even athletic programs were on par. The difference, however, is that the Catholic school is a Christ-centered learning environment where students are taught the Catholic religion, practice their faith, develop a mature spirituality, and learn Catholic-Christian values that will guide their lives both now and in the future.
Faith, Knowledge, Service
“Catholic Schools – Communities of Faith, Knowledge, and Service” is this year’s theme for Catholic Schools Week, celebrated Jan. 26 to 31. Each year, a week is set aside to celebrate and recognize the contributions of Catholic schools in the community. This practice began in the early 1970s.
Catholic schools have and continue to offer quality education for all people, regardless of socio-economic status. The schools provide a traditional academic education to strengthen the mind, athletic opportunities to strengthen the body, and spirituality to strengthen the faith and instill a desire to serve others.
Students attending Catholic schools are provided with a rigorous schedule of classes that demands academic excellence and prepares them for the challenges of college and, later, the work force. For sure, many public schools have challenging academic programs and graduate students who are knowledgeable and greatly contribute to society. Many also require and expect their students to give back to the community through service.
It is the education in faith and nurturing of spirituality that is the highest value that Catholic schools have to offer. Students are immersed in the faith and spirituality of the Catholic Church. Daily prayer in all classes, before all events, weekly Masses or prayer services, recitation of the Rosary, praying the Stations of the Cross and opportunities for the communal celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation are vital to our Catholic identity. Religion classes, where students are taught and learn to develop or strengthen their faith in Jesus Christ, are a part of each schedule. Students are challenged to reflect on the teaching of the Church and to become more knowledgeable about it. Students are challenged to internalize the message so to develop a mature spirituality that will lead them to become active members of their Church and their community. Flowing from this spirituality is a desire and need to serve Christ in the poor of our local communities.
‘Real Champions in the Service of Others’
Students are encouraged and expected to be involved in their local and the global community through works of service. Often, students are required to complete a specified number of community service hours in order to graduate. For example, at Santa Fe Catholic High School, our students are required to have 100 hours of service as one of the graduation requirements. My experience, however, has been that many students far exceed that requirement.
Students have demonstrated through their service that they have learned Jesus’s powerful message: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (Jn 13:15) I have had the privilege to accompany students on home mission trips to Chicago, Jackson, Miss., Virginia Beach, Va., and Nicaragua. In these places, students feed the poor, build shelter, and improve living conditions, offer friendship and a listening ear. My students have also given back to the local community through collections of food, clothing or money to assist various non-profits in their work with the poor. This is the ultimate value of a Catholic education.
On June 7, 2013, Pope Francis said this while speaking to students from Jesuit schools in Italy: “In your school, you take part in various activities that habituate you not to shut yourselves in on yourselves or in your small world, but to be open to others, especially to the poorest and neediest, to work to improve the world in which we live. Be men and women with others and for others, real champions in the service of others. To be magnanimous with interior liberty and a spirit of service, spiritual formation is necessary. Dear children, dear youths, love Jesus Christ ever more!”
When students graduate from Catholic schools, they are well prepared to face the world with a strong faith and commitment to serve, allowing them to be successful in life. Students leave our schools with a sense of deeply held values that enable them to live a Catholic-Christian lifestyle. Our schools are communities of faith, knowledge and service, laying the foundation for our future leaders who will lead with faith, knowledge and service.
— Br. Paul has served as campus minister at Santa Fe Catholic High School, Lakeland, Fla., since August 2009. He has ministered in Catholic education since 1986 as a religion teacher, campus minister and director of religious education. He holds a bachelor’s degree in religion and religious education from The Catholic University of America and a master’s degree in religious education from Fordham University.