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She came bounding into the house, navy blue cardigan half off, plaid jumper askew, the biggest smile plastered on her little face.
“Mom! Guess who I saw today!?”
“Who, Rose? Who’d you see?”
“Well…First I saw the Bishop and he said to tell you hello. And then I saw two nuns! And they have the same name, Sister Miriam and Sister Miriam Ruth. And then I saw a priest, the same one who came to our house for dinner. He was at my school too!”
I laughed as she rattled off her list of celebrity Catholic encounters for the day, happy that in her pre-k world, a visit from the Bishop and the Religious Sisters of Mercy is about as cool as if Mickey Mouse himself had flown in from Disney World.
It is those moments that make me most grateful for our choice to send our children to a Catholic school. That she delights in seeing priests and nuns on campus, that she gets to go to Mass and Adoration weekly, that she is known by name and noticed in a particular way each day – all reasons we chose Catholic education.
It was a decision we did not come to lightly, weighing all our educational options from the moment we found out we were expecting our first child in December of 2016. Our assigned public school is highly ranked in the city, there’s a wonderful magnet school with an excellent STEM and French immersion program, we talked about homeschooling because of the flexibility of my job. But, as we made our list of priorities and discerned what we were ultimately looking for, my husband and I continued to return to one question: how are we forming our children for heaven, and who could help us?
Enter…a Catholic school.
Catholic schools are meant to be places of formation – in mind, body, and spirit – and are supposed to be institutions that partner with parents to raise up children called to be salt and light in the world. They are places guided by the belief that if we raise a child up in the way he should go, when he is old, he will not depart from it. And, perhaps that child will go on to live the Truth in a way so dynamic and appealing that others will come to live it too. Catholic schools exist not just for themselves, but literally to form young men and women to live lives of service and sacrifice, proclaiming the faith and giving witness to Christ in the world.
A product of Catholic education myself, I knew firsthand the benefits of Catholic education. And as my husband and I discerned and discussed how we’d educate our children, I began to realize all that Catholic schools had given me.
It was in a Catholic school that I first learned to pray. Each morning, an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be recited over a crackling loud speaker. Simple, rote, routine. But something I still do to this day. It was in a Catholic school that I was encouraged to ask questions, both big and small. A friendly deacon, our academic administrator, gave me a copy of Theology for Beginners by Frank Sheed when I was a junior in high school, and weekly we’d meet to discuss my questions. Deacon Viau later became my confirmation sponsor and years later, read the Gospel at my wedding. It was in a Catholic school I formed fruitful and lasting friendships, building community with people I could laugh with, trust, grow with, and know well into adulthood, friends whose children my own children are now growing up with. It was in a Catholic school I learned to think, to write, to debate, and to reason. I can still remember my math teacher rapping about the Pythagorean theorem, my Latin teacher conjugating verbs, and my history teacher reciting the preamble of the Constitution, each educator more passionate than the last, inspiring me to become a teacher myself. It was in a Catholic school that I first encountered and came to know Jesus Christ, present in the Mass we attended each Friday, known through the Scriptures we reflected upon every Monday, loved in the sacramental life we were encouraged to embrace, and shown to me in the love of supportive, encouraging, and knowledgeable faculty and staff.
I have seen the benefit of Catholic schools every day of my life, and knew this was something I wanted for my own kids.
They’re certainly not perfect, though, and Catholic schools (especially today) are not immune from necessary criticisms. Far too many have become elitist institutions with absurdly high price tags with small class sizes, strict uniform policies, a lack of diversity and inclusive practices, with just a few crucifixes on the walls and no faith or Catholic identity in sight. Too many Catholic schools have bent to the pressures of a world that demands they hide their Catholicity, squelch their religious practices, and those schools end up buckling under the weight and morph into a “kind of faithful, but not really, we just have the plaid skirts” Catholic school with nothing that sets them apart from any other expensive, elite academy.
There’s plenty of those private schools to satisfy the parents who simply want their kids to have sterling college applications so rich you’d think they’re royalty.
What must set apart the Catholic school – and what makes Catholic education something worth fighting for, investing in, and supporting – is the Catholic identity at its heart, which leads the Catholic school to thrive in every other area. And, most important of all, those of us who long to see it must be on the front lines of fighting for it, insisting upon it, and helping create it.
We can lob criticisms at Catholic schools all we want, yank our kids from the register, refuse to spend our hard-earned dollars on something we know could be better… But until we’re willing to step into the ring and fight for the Catholic identity of our schools ourselves, those problems will never be fixed.
And so, we insist upon the morning, midday, and afternoon prayer, knowing that this time of worship is not simply expected, but joyfully anticipated and can be truly transformative. We ask for the presence of engaged priests and religious who give witness to a joyful life for the Lord that shows our children that our lives are not our own. It’s in building a curriculum that is rigorous, competitive, rooted in great books, and wholly formational of the mind, preparing students to engage in the workforce, higher education, and in service to others. It’s in creating the opportunities to know Jesus, love others like Jesus, and make Jesus known to others that fosters an atmosphere of Christ-centered learning on campus, where Jesus is not an idea or fairytale figure, but the first and most important teacher in the building. It’s in advocating for and supporting faculty, staff, and families that know every child by name, and are on each child’s side, helping tiny kindergartners to upperclassmen strive for holiness day by day. It’s in participating fully in service to the community, creating a school that does not exist only for itself, but for all who pass by, a school that is a beacon of hope and joy to an entire neighborhood.
This is what makes a Catholic school Catholic – what makes a monthly tuition check worth it: because the Catholic school exists not unto itself, but for the good of all who attend or even simply know its name, and raises up children to step into a world that will greatly benefit from a child formed in mind, body, and spirit.
Our Catholic school has Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at the start of each month, and students in each grade spend time a little time with Jesus. One Wednesday morning I popped in to pray, and the kindergarten class was leaving right as I arrived. I said a quick hello to Sister Miriam Ruth, the hero of every child on campus, who had been leading the kids in a decade of the rosary.
“Those kids really love you, Sister,” I said as a I gave her a hug hello.
She laughed, smiled like only a nun can, and said “Well, I love them too. And I hope they all love Jesus most of all.”
And that, right there, is the goal, purpose, point, and what we fight for in Catholic education: helping our children love Jesus most of all.
Happy Catholic Schools Week.