Two years ago there was a popular article shuffling about social media for Catholic Schools Week. It gave me reason to write my own reflections “why I support my own catholicschool.” All that I said there still holds, and I still support my own Catholic school, as a pastor, spiritually, morally, financially. But as time goes on I venture a little closer to the cross of my Lord, I think truths which applied then are more important to be spoken now. If the devout Catholic, who longs and prays over these things, could not see these clearly in my first go round, I ask for prayers as I make them quite clear here. For the most part I talk about “the majority” in regards to the sins of omission that I see as defects in my Catholic school. The situation is of course more complicated than my brief descriptions.
My school is entering its 120th year of operation, and I don’t want to put a damper on any due celebrations over the fact. But birthdays should also be reminders of our call to holiness, and we can make our joy over all that has gone right over the last 120 years as our inspiration to transform what is wrong right now. In fact the thing I fear the most by putting these things in writing is not discouragement of anyone else but condemnation of my own hypocrisy and judgmentalism. For I am indeed part of all the problems at hand. And when making known my complaints I do not know if I will be faithful enough to do what I should about them.
Further, before listing what is wrong with my school, I should say right off what is NOT wrong with my school. It is not Catholic only in the pure nominal sense. It is not a school where all that was most valuable in traditional Catholicism was all lost. It not a place devoid of genuine Catholic prayer. It is not a place that overlooks the Eucharist and Confession as essentials. It is not a club-ish, snooty school for the rich. It is not a place where “no one has a clue” as to the ethos of the deep faith which has defined Catholicism, vis-s-vis the clueless culturally conformed Catholicism, which puts niceness before the scriptures, respectability before Christ, and shallow opinions before the 2000 years of Church history since Christ. My school is not a place where charity is superficial and true sacrifice, for love of others, is an ideal that is faked without commitment. There have been enough great Catholics, and still are enough, to keep us above these sorts of reproaches. So there is no way in… (pick whichever place)… that I would let my school shut down, even if harder than usual times were to come upon us. While are not “there,” we are half way there. We are the Apostles at the Transfiguration, but we haven’t made it to Pentecost yet. So with all this made clear, here is some of my thoughts on what is wrong with my Catholic school.
What is wrong with my Catholic school is a shallow perspective on community. Now, the community is there. It is even very healthy when compared to some schools and some parishes. Many a Christian sentiment is happily present in my school (whereas it may be much worse in the public). So the majority of the families rightly appreciate the community (like every parish should too). But they do not gratefully acknowledge that it is only because of Christ that this community exists. Christ is the only source of perfect, unfailing community. But some in my school wrongly think the minor instruments of Christian community, surrounding the school, to be the main co-equal sources of the community that they enjoy. They do not see the real background to what they enjoy. They are hindered from it because, weak in faith, they cannot see how great are the fruits of real Christian community, or the one Source behind them. For example, perhaps the most important factor in the existence of such a school as we have today was the religious order that used to staff it (my school was staffed by the Sisters of the Assumption). It is thought that their legacy is the school itself; people thus think wrongly that by keeping the school functioning as an educational institution they are honoring the sisters’ legacy. But the school is not the sisters’ legacy. Their legacy is Catholic service to God, lived out in poverty, chastity, and obedience. That was what their own religious community was built on. It should be what our school community acknowledges: holiness. Our Catholic school community is real, but it is shallow when it forgets Christ
What is wrong with my Catholic school is that, still too often, education is approached in primarily worldly goals. It has been said “the person who does not read has no advantage over the person who cannot read.” It is true enough if one were to accept this as an extreme scenario. But even with the idealism of such an educational proverb, I can do one much better as far as Catholic ideals, with all the more truth in its extreme. “The one who reads only things that lead to vice, and not to virtue, is worse off than the one who cannot read at all.” This proverb too seems like an impossible extreme, but the saints, let alone our current holy father, would say there many examples that could fulfill it all too tragically. Think of all the false gods our children will meet on the road of education. Indeed they are already exposed to them! The false gods of materialism. The false gods of careerism. The false god of acclaim. The false gods of public approval and political correctness. The false gods of the academic achievements themselves. Really, my school (that is, its staff) does do a good job of keeping all of life’s priorities in good order (the order we rightly find in Christian humility). But worldliness always creeps in too. Our Lord summarized this as “the leaven of Herod and the leaven of the Pharisees.” The 12 apostles were not immune from these evil tendencies, and neither are our Catholic Schools. Neither is my Catholic school. Now to be very clear, there is no heretical curriculum being used, or smutty or demoralizing content (such as in so many horror stories in the recent controversies). But one can still study all the right books for all the wrong reasons. To the extent that our idea of success is merely to “advance” and “do well” in a societal sense, our intentions still are not Catholic.
What is wrong with my Catholic school is that there should be more loyalty to Christ among the parents. Of course, the loyalty that is there is admirable. It is disheartening for what is not there, because there could be so much more. Our Lord taught us about having faith like children. But to grow older and be more child-like means to rely completely on the Lord. Alas, in our so-called adult ways we believe we are self-sufficient, and it is the adults and the parents who believe that they can “make it on their own” for most of life, while just fulfilling a few duties towards God in the meantime. Such is the outlook on life, and the week faith, of too many of our parents. All but a few claim to be Christian. The majority claims to be Catholic. That the vast majority does believe in God and does pray (compared to the residents of our pagan, agnostic state) is great. But believing in God and praying do not guarantee one is really Christian, and do not equate to fidelity to Christ. Regarding this the Lord said “they do not know the scriptures or the power of God.” St. Paul, our school patron, said “Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness.” But he also said, “Christ is strong when I am weak.” There are problems in a Catholic community whenever we are too self sufficient to accept the power of Christ.
What is wrong with my Catholic school is that there are not vocations coming from it. Here I will dig deep and comment on a weakness in Catholic marriage practice that has hurt both our vocational life and our schools. I pose it as a statement and a question, the core of which really do boil down to trusting in the Lord. Some may or may not agree that our shortage of priests and religious had little to do with the shrinking size of Catholic families, and more to do with the rejection of the Catholic doctrine about family planning. I do not see those two as the same exact thing, for I hold that if more Catholic parents started to use Natural Family Planning to have smaller families, as opposed to the most convenient societal methods of birth control, a greater percentage of the their children would have accepted a vocation. It cannot be proved. But, to tie this to trust in Christ, we can simply ask a question to all Catholics who still intuit a great value and high ideal in celibacy for the Kingdom of God. How will our children choose to accept celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God (priesthood and religious life) when their parents have not even given the example of chastity for the Catholic sacrament of matrimony? One answer is that we should all become Protestants and not worry about it. There is not much that I can say to that. There is certainly very little that any particular Catholic school can do to reverse our vocations dearth. But I can say if we want to remain Catholic, we should be Catholic because we trust Christ in even most vulnerable parts of our lives. The most vulnerable part of a vocational life, whether it be vocational in the family sense or the consecrated or ordained sense, is all of it.
What is wrong with my Catholic school is there are no conversions in the sacramental sense. Well, practically none. In fact there are a few partial conversions, which is noticeably more than the “zero” adult sacraments which have happened in my parish without the parish school. Here’s the gist. The students get excited about religion class; their parents not as much. Most all our students want the sacraments of initiation, because they are easy to receive. Their unbaptized, unconfirmed, unmarried parents do not; because the sacraments are hard to live out. Again, this seems much less troublesome in the light that the few sacraments given through contact with our school families are noticeable in comparison to the absolute lack of sacraments received by other adults in our parish. That might be a consolation or it might be all the more cause for lament. There really is abundant, untapped goodwill toward the Catholic faith here. We need the prayers and faith of many people to turn that into actual fruit. Say that family X has enrolled their kids for years. The kids were eventually baptized because one parent was Catholic and the kids were desirous of baptism for years. They will be better Christians because of it. But it is not certain whether they will draw from the fullness of the Catholic faith unless the Catholic parent comes to desire to have their marriage blessed and/or “practice” the rest of Catholicism. It is, practically, only then that non-Catholic parents might actually want to become Catholics. So far there are no examples of this full conversion in the sacramental sense. So we work on the other kind of conversion.
What is wrong with my Catholic school is that it needs great conversion, starting with the Catholics. Here the word conversion means holiness. Where do we begin? Saint Teresa Benedicta said “Every time I feel my powerlessness and inability to influence people directly, I become more keenly aware of the necessity of my own holocaust.” Was there ever a more prophetic statement about holiness? It is first of all those who do receive the sacraments and communion who must lead the way. Then it will go on to those who attend Mass, but do not do much more. And so on. The Holy Spirit inspires from the top down and from the bottom up. So let us, who think we have climbed a little higher in the objective truth of the faith, move a little lower on the rungs of humility and service.
This leads to the last thing wrong with my school. Its pastor trusts too much in his own efforts and not enough on genuine prayer. For sure he prays a lot. But would that it was the prayer of holiness, not some bargaining or complaining session meant to persuade the Lord. And then of course, by his reasoning, the faithful laity must be somewhat to blame because “they always give false praise about how well the pastor is doing, without a clue as to what makes for holiness, etc. etc.” And the pity party continues. Yet the responsibility is there. Other people, and unavoidable factors, do lead the pastor to waste his time, but none more than he does himself. That is to say, than I do myself. For the pastor is me. And to try to get off on the right foot of holiness for today, what comes to mind is the act of love. May I live it out well today, along with all the members of my Catholic school community. “O my God, I love you above all things, with my whole heart and soul, because you are all good and worthy of all my love. I love my neighbor as myself for the love of you. I forgive all who have injured me and I ask pardon of all whom I have injured.”