BY CAROLINE MCDONALD
It’s that time of the year when some of my students tell me they’re not returning to St. Ignatius. I always give them a hug and tell them I’ll miss them. That is sincere: by the end of the school year we are family and it’s like saying goodbye to a child. And interiorly, I’m devastated. As someone who has spent a lifetime in a Catholic school classroom, either sitting in a desk or standing behind a podium, it makes me deeply, deeply sad. And quite frankly, mystified. I know that no school of any kind is perfect: principals and teachers have good days and bad … some teachers are excellent and some ho-hum … I homeschooled for 15 years and I can assure you that was not perfect either!!! But I cannot think of what benefit could outweigh the myriad blessings that come from a Catholic education. I’ve personally witnessed this is in my own life, in the lives of my 5 children, and in the lives of my students. I honestly don’t think parents have a true understanding of what their kids will be missing.
There are plenty of scholarly articles out there with stats on and figures on the excellence of Catholic education (superior test scores, etc). I encourage everyone to do their research and read them. But here I would simply like to focus on the effects in my own family. I think about my own John Paul, about to start 8th grade. His education (and especially his faith life) would be so lacking without the experiences he has gained in our Catholic school. Here’s just a small portion of what he would have missed:
Opportunities to assist at Mass. Weekly school Masses bring innumerable opportunities for kids to lector, bring up the gifts, usher, and especially to serve at the altar. John Paul and his peers are often asked to serve at funerals during the week, which is a wonderful way to live out the Works of Mercy to “Bury the dead” and “Pray for the living and the dead.” It also reminds them of their own mortality – never a bad thing for a teenager!
Immersion in a life of prayer. The Catholic school day revolves around prayer and the sacraments. John Paul would have missed out on quarterly confessions, weekly Adoration, weekly Mass, class rosaries, Stations of the Cross, May Crownings, and more. Since prayers are frequently recited, they are learned effortlessly. In our school, for example, we pray the same morning prayer for a month, so by the end of the month the entire school (even the littlest ones) can recite beautiful prayers like St. Ignatius’ Prayer for Generosity, the Suscipe, the Anima Christi, St. Francis’ Prayer for Peace, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, the Act of Faith, The Morning Offering, and on and on. We didn’t come close to memorizing that many prayers as homeschoolers. These prayers will stay with my kids their whole lives.
Participation in Middle School Prayer Groups. John Paul has been part of the Young Men of St. Joseph that meets before school for breakfast and to read and discuss the upcoming Sunday Gospel. (The girls have their own equivalent group.) He also joined Lifesavers, a middle school peer-led pro-life group that meets at 6:30 am at Planned Parenthood on Fridays during the Forty Days for Life campaign. They pray the Rosary and listen to a speaker on some important life issue. These unique experiences have helped his faith mature.
Friendship with Clergy. With so many bad examples currently blasted all over the media, I am grateful that John Paul is on a first-name basis with holy, excellent priests and religious. We are blessed to have 5 seminarians from our parish – graduates of our grade school. On breaks they always come by to hang out: they eat lunch with us, play basketball games at PE, speak during religion classes, assist at school Masses. Seminary life seems normal and actually pretty cool to our middle schoolers as a result. John Paul would have missed out on all this if not enrolled in our school.
Instruction in our Catholic Faith. Of course religion classes are crucial. John Paul was in a good CCD program when younger, but there is absolutely no comparison to what he’s learned in the Catholic school classroom. I have to be honest here, and please know that I’m former CCD teacher myself! Just consider that the best CCD classes out there may meet 36 times, for roughly 36 hours of instruction per year (that’s 4 times a month for 9 months). Compare that to 180 hours of direct religious instruction for the Catholic school kid, not counting all the other instruction received throughout the school day mentioned above. It’s no wonder that only 5% of kids who don’t go to Catholic school will attend Sunday Mass as adults. They have no idea of what they’re missing because they haven’t been sufficiently taught!
My husband urges parents to substitute any other subject for religion, and ask if they’d be satisfied with the CCD model of instruction: “I agree that Algebra I is important, but I think one hour a week is sufficient, with a volunteer teacher who may or may not be trained in the subject. We’ll talk about it some at home too.” Of course that would be absurd, and to think it’s not also absurd for religious instruction continued from page 4….means that we don’t yet fully grasp the depths and riches of our Catholic faith.
But what about when I homeschooled John Paul? It was a great joy to instruct him in the faith everyday – we used to sit on my bed and read and discuss chapters in his religion text, plus read lots of saint stories and do fun projects designed to help us live out the liturgical year. There comes a time, however, right around middle school, where boys especially need to hear from other role models. I could literally feel them tuning Mom out. But suddenly, their amazing religion teacher says the very same thing and it takes on a whole new life. I’ve focused primarily on grade school here, but this crossroads in faith instruction was magnified a hundred-fold once my kids reached McGill. The Theology teachers and our campus ministers’ influence on my 3 older kids’ faith has been transformative; the retreats they sponsored, life-changing. When my oldest son delivered his valedictory address he thanked exactly three people: one was his physics teacher, a great Catholic man whose guidance set my son on his current career path, and the other two were our campus minister and priest chaplain. What a void would exist in his life if he hadn’t benefitted from their presence and guidance day in and day out, over four years, not just once a week for an hour or two at night for youth group.
Some of my dear friends opting for private or public schools have told me, “Well I went there and I turned out all right!” Seriously, y’all, that was in a different era. It is simply not the same. My Mom tells of her excellent public school education in the 1950s in Auburn, AL. But all her teachers and principals shared a basic belief in God and similar world-view. The virtues were taught and insisted upon. Today what is true is taught as bigotry; the curricula are antagonistic toward any type of faith – or even the very idea of objective truth. Father Shields preached one Sunday that it’s like we’ve all fallen through Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole, and the world is upside down.
It is incredibly difficult to emerge from that nihilistic world-view unscathed, and if this were a more scholarly treatise, I would argue that any education resulting from that faulty understanding of man and creation is seriously, deeply flawed. Now more than ever we need our kids in Catholic schools – not to shield them from the world but to arm them with the Truth.