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Want to Grow the Faith? Nurture the Seedlings

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From January 31 through February 6, Catholics around the United States will be observing Catholic Schools Week. This annual celebration of the benefits of Catholic education includes special Masses, themed posters, public service announcements, and open houses.

From January 31 through February 6, Catholics around the United States will be observing Catholic Schools Week. This annual celebration of the benefits of Catholic education includes special Masses, themed posters, public service announcements, and open houses. If you have children or grandchildren in Catholic schools, or if you’re part of the Catholic education community, you already know the drill.

But why should the rest of us care? Why should Catholic Schools Week (and the care and future of Catholic schools themselves) matter to Catholics without children? Catholics whose children don’t attend Catholic schools? Members of parishes with no parish school?

Because Catholic schools depend on all of us, and because — as this CARA study reveals — Catholic schools grow the church. Adults who attended Catholic schools are more likely to attend Mass weekly, which is the cornerstone of parish life. They are more likely to be confirmed and to continue in the sacramental life of the Church. They are more likely to provide the vocations to priesthood and religious life—as well as to lay ministry and the diaconate—that are so vitally needed to serve the New Evangelization.

Of the 2,044 Catholic elementary and high schools in the U.S., let’s consider two examples of schools that make a difference:

Established in 1876, St. Joseph School in Pomona, California, began as an outgrowth of San Gabriel Mission, serving the families of Spanish settlers. As the area transitioned from outpost, to orange-crop agricultural hub, and then into urbanization, the school has continued to prepare young people—47% of whom come from low-income families—for a future of success and faithful witness.

South Central Los Angeles’s Nativity School was founded in 1925. Over its history, Nativity has served the neighborhood’s African American and Hispanic communities, providing hope and opportunity in one of the most economically challenged areas of the archdiocese. Over 90% of Nativity’s 340 students come from families at or below the Federal poverty level. These students give back to their community in more than 1,000 hours of service a year.

Both schools have a 100% continuation rate into secondary school. Both have high school graduation and college attendance rates of 98%.

Counting the Benefits

Those academic statistics are part of the good news about Catholic schools. Some of the other quality snapshots you’ll see emphasized during Catholic Schools Week include:

  • National pupil/teacher ratios of 13:1
  • 4-year college attendance rates of 85.7% (compared to 39.5% for public school students)
  • Per pupil costs of $12,054 per year (a $24 billion savings to the nation)

Counting the Costs

Of course there are big challenges facing Catholic schools. Finances and demographics lead the list. Tuition costs, no matter how affordable administrators try to keep them, are a real sacrifice for Catholic parents, and they don’t begin to meet 100% of schools’ needs. This is especially true in parts of the country, such as the Northeast and Midwest, where the Catholic population has been in decline, but even in areas like the South and West — where the Church is growing by leaps and bounds, with 32% of schools maintaining waiting lists, and 27 new schools built last year — support of Catholic schools must be drawn from a wider base than the schools themselves.

The truth is, Catholic schools are the mission and responsibility of all of us. The US Catholic bishops made this clear in their 2005 recommitment to Catholic education in the 21st century.

“The burden of supporting our Catholic schools can no longer be placed exclusively on the individual parishes that have schools and on parents who pay tuition. This will require all Catholics, including those in parishes without schools, to focus on the spirituality of stewardship. The future of Catholic school education depends on the entire Catholic community embracing wholeheartedly the concept of stewardship of time, talent, and treasure, and translating stewardship into concrete action.” (Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium)

The Stewardship Connection

Nativity and St. Joseph schools know what it means to be embraced wholeheartedly by the entire Catholic community. They, along with 61 other Catholic schools and 80 parishes in Los Angeles, are supported by the archdiocese’s unique Together in Mission campaign—the only diocesan annual appeal in the United States that goes solely to the support of parishes and schools in need.

That parish part is important. When Catholics see Catholic schools as part of parish ministry—not only in their own parish, but in the family of parishes that makes up the Body of Christ in its local diocesan presence—support becomes not only a shared burden but a source of the joy of evangelization. In Los Angeles, that has meant keeping historic parish communities alive and vibrant, maintaining Catholic schools as a thriving presence in every neighborhood, and shaping shared Catholic identity among diverse populations and across generations.

“We support both parishes and schools for a reason,” says Together in Mission’s director Anthony Sciacca, noting the devastating effects that parish and school closures can have on communities. “Losing a school or a parish is losing part of our identity as the Church. Fortunately, we are blessed with parishioners everywhere who understand that this support is part of the stewardship of their archdiocese.”

Encountering the Living Christ

“At the heart of Catholic education there is always Jesus Christ: everything that happens in Catholic schools and universities should lead to an encounter with the living Christ.” (“Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion,” World Congress on Catholic Education, 2015)

That culture of encounter with the Lord that Pope Francis is always reminding us it’s our mission to promote? It’s right there in our Catholic schools.

This year, during Catholic Schools Week, make it a point to seek out that encounter for yourself—especially if you’re not already connected to a Catholic school by family or profession or parish. Attend an open house, in your community or across town or across your diocese. Talk with families about why a Catholic education is so important to them. Ask Catholic school alumni what difference that encounter with Christ made to them.

Think about what might be lost—in our Catholic identity, our community’s strength, our children’s hope, our Church’s and our nation’s future—if there were no Catholic schools. And then do what you can to make sure that never happens.

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