I did not ask to become the pastor of a Catholic School. In fact, I was slightly surprised to be assigned as a teacher in one of them at the time of my ordination. My brief experience teaching in, and then administrating, Catholic Schools has not always been fun, or edifying, or exceedingly hopeful for the future of our Catholic youth. It is a hard go of it, and to a degree I sympathize with those who wonder if it is worth trying to keep them going. My school, currently, is a small one. The teachers get paid minimally, and can afford to work there only because of the presence of family and community; a spouse who also works, or sharing an apartment with relatives, etc. I have the typical breakdown in levels of devotion among Catholic parishioners who attend: one third are at Mass most all the time. One third occasionally come. One third never come, save maybe the C & E crowd. There could be circumstances in which I would say to shut the whole thing down. But in the present circumstances, here are the reasons why I fight so hard to keep it all going.
I support my own Catholic school because a classroom full of kids all saying the Hail Mary together is worth more than a thousand dollars. In some places of the United States a religious culture still predominates, even in public schools. Not in New England. The same atmosphere of agnostic, indifferent, burnt-out post-Christian culture, which makes it hard to evangelize in our Catholic parishes, has created an even more culturally-damning atmosphere in the public school scene. Trying to teach children to be their best in life, with such an atmosphere that cuts out and discards one of humanity’s essential traits (the religious and the spiritual), is like trying to fly a remote controlled airplane without the remote. Sure it costs a lot to run a Catholic school; so much work, so much of our own personal resources. For my money (pun intended) simply having a place where groups of children are allowed and encouraged to pray, every single day, is worth it.
I support my own Catholic school because having teachers who engage in a personal prayer life of their own, is worth even more. I don’t see all my teachers at Mass every weekend. I don’t really know what kind of religious practices imbue the lives of my non-Catholic teachers when they are not at work. Still, I know there is a faithful core, and a faithful spirit, among my staff. The majority, who would miss Mass only when they are sick and nearly bedridden, carry the spiritual weight of the school, and give me hope that we can pull the others along with us on the road to beatitude. The value of this is beyond comparison. We may lag behind in our professional teacher development; we can’t pay for them to take the best classes, or train them to be on the very top of things in their teaching skills and pedagogy. These would be great, but we do not make teacher professionalism the measure of our school. Jesus never commended such a lopsided vision of success. He taught by his life. It is still the most important principle for any teacher. One of our Diocesan priests says this often. It doesn’t matter what you teach or how. You teach who you are. My teachers are people of prayer, and that is something worth “selling all and giving to the poor,” to continue. (Yes, to the poor Catholic school teachers).
I support my own Catholic school because even the parents/guardians who rely too much on us to parent their own children, often know it and lament it. No one pretends that a Catholic school can replace an actual family. But the Catholic faith is intentional about replicating the family in its institutions. The domestic Church and the parochial Church should mirror each other for a reason. It is worth trying to show that to as many families as possible, even if they slightly abuse the privilege. If families are messed up, if for example there are more and more grandparents needing to parent their grandchildren, it may or may not be our fault, but it is our problem. Yes, we take the modern-day problems of the family into our school when we take their children. Yes, it costs us even more time and effort when we need to generate scholarship funds because these families are the ones who can’t afford the whole tuition. But if ministry is something that parishes should invest in, where else are you going to be an influence on families? For the present time, I value the expensive endeavor of mixed success in my Catholic school over any other supposedly cheaper option. Whether families want it or not, we are going to try to impart our Catholic family ideals so long as they are with us: honor, respect, love, and family religious practice. A previous generation may have replaced the Third Commandment with their own fashion of “thou shalt support thy child’s Catholic school.” If that is where they left off with the faith, then that is where I shall pick them up. The families may not want everything the Catholic faith has to offer. But they are here because they know they need at least some of it, and we’ll take them there.
I support my own Catholic school because even if a family leaves before we have changed their life as much as we would want, we have done good. The families who leave Catholic Schools in our Diocese rarely do so on sour terms. We might wish they could have dedicated a little more to be with us, but the circumstances of life are what they are. People move. Work and home situations change. For some, the educational or faith “benefit” may no longer seem worth their personal investment. None of these mean we have failed in what we are supposed to do for the families that enrolled their children. Our mission is not to graduate the greatest numbers we can. It is not to build a successful display of alumni. Our mission is to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. I can see that we doing this even for those families who pull out and don’t “complete the program.” In my experience, the few who may speak badly about their past experience in our Catholic schools are soon drowned out by our public good name, which I think is doing good for our Lord and His Church. I expect things to continue this way, myself adding to the longevity as much as I can.
I support my own Catholic school because I am serving a mission which is greater than my own. I personally benefited from a Catholic education, at home. Knowing what it is like for homeschooling Catholics to receive the locals pastor’s scorn for not supporting the local parochial school, I am determined not to the make the same mistake. Catholic education is not about “my school.” Even supporting my school is not about “my school.” I support the Catholic faith. I support Catholic families. I support Catholic education. If all our Catholic schools verged on closing because too many Catholic families decided to homeschool their children, we could hardly be blessed with a better problem to have. The modern Catholic parent has more tools at their disposal than ever to fulfill their task as primary educators. If they choose to give it a try, in the true spirit of embracing that role which the Church has articulated for them, they are making as much of an investment in Catholic education as they would have by giving us the thousands of dollars in tuition and greater numbers for enrollment (besides, from my own experience it adds to the chances of some extra vocations). Modern-day Catholic homeschooling is my primary example of serving a mission which is greater than my own school. But the spirit, where we do no begrudge sacrifices for our school because we have mistaken the actual school for the mission itself, leads us to advance Catholic education in other ways. If I secure a donation for another Catholic school because I apologizes for encroaching upon their benefactors, then I advance my mission. If I get a student, who is moving away, to enroll in another Catholic school, then I advance my mission. If I have to work a little harder because of all of the above to keep my school running day in and day out, then I advance my mission in the right way, by acknowledging that it is not my own.
All of this having been said, you do not have to support “my” Catholic school. But you had better be on board with my mission (lest I call you a heretic, or worse). You had better be an influence in you parish, or parishes, of involvement. Your prayers, your time, your money should all be doing something for the Kingdom of God. What are you doing?
Fr. Timothy Naples, Diocese of Burlington