Advertisements ad

January 18, 2009

Catholic schools pass on the faith

By Sister M. Paul McCaughey, O.P.


As we celebrate faith, scholarship and service in our schools every day and especially during Catholic Schools Week beginning on Jan. 25, one of the strongest needs forwarded by the pastors and principals has been that of marketing our schools. They are right, but I am discovering the vital importance of telling our story internally, as well as to the general public. Sometimes as Catholics we lose a sense of the power of our own schools.

When a pastor sent me some reflections, it was just in time for this Faith and Education edition of the Catholic New World. In providing a “theology” for our schools, he gifts us with his insight and confirms the tremendous work I see every day in the Catholic schools of Lake and Cook counties. He requested that we not identify him. Here are his thoughts:

A theological rationale for Catholic schools

Catholics have a capacity for something that would be called “magical realism” if it were found in literature. We believe that the whole of reality is charged with grace; that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ and all the rest.

We believe in miracles. We receive this gift best when we are children. Who was it that said “Give me a child for a few years, and I’ll make a Catholic for life?”

Whoever it was, they were right. Someone might come to the church as an adult, but they aren’t going to have the same kind of faith as a child (barring a miracle, and of course we believe in those).

Maybe that’s why a recent study of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults showed such poor results. It found that 10 years after entering the church, few converts were still practicing the Catholic faith.

How are Catholics made? It’s probably similar to how Americans are made. Everyone who attended elementary school here had to pass the Constitution test and know how many representatives were in the House of Representatives and other relevant details.

Most adults have forgotten all those details (along with a whole lot more), but we’re still Americans. It’s not in the tiny details that we are American. Being American is something you absorb from the environment and something you assent to as you grow.

It’s the same with being a Catholic. It’s not the details. Children absorb this faith thing in school and through their families. They learn that their parents and teachers and all the significant adults in their lives think and feel and believe in a certain way.

Children absorb it the same way they absorb language. They don’t have to learn nouns and verbs and direct and indirect objects to learn English. They simply soak it up.

It’s the same with our faith. Children soak up the faith and are changed for life in our schools. What a tremendous gift to give a child. Not only that, we teach them to read to boot.

No better way

That’s the good news. The difficulty is that there really is no other effective way to do this on what you might call a “wholesale” level. Certainly there are other ways of passing on the faith. There are religious- education programs, there’s RCIA, among others things.

But any pastor who wants to discover the effectiveness of those approaches only has to search the sacramental records at his parish. How many children baptized? How many confirmed? How many of those are still coming to church?

We have to have Catholic schools to pass on our faith. At their best, perhaps 50 percent of our elementary school students will be Catholics as adults. It seems like a poor return. Still, 50 percent is far, far better than the alternative.

It’s clearly very costly to run these schools. It always has been. It takes a lot of work to form families and parents in the faith. It’s the only effective way to pass on the faith. And, if it’s the mission of Jesus to keep his church alive, he’ll help us find the resources. We do believe in miracles, don’t we?

Sister M. Paul is superintendent of Catholic schools.