Catholics in Public Schools Week

Catholics in Public Schools Week

I didn’t attend a Catholic school until college. Sadly, I don’t know if that counts as many “Catholic” colleges specialized long ago. Yet even this public-school kid knows there is little question in regard to Catholic schools having had a tremendous impact on the American church and education in general. The vast majority of our vocations come from these institutions as well. I welcome the “Catholic Schools Week” that is celebrated in many dioceses each year to maintain awareness of the contributions these institutions make.

My issue is, however, “What about the public-school kids?” I have reminded several pastors that there are many more Catholic kids in our area attending public schools today than parochial schools. Like many parents, my wife and I have been fortunate to raise a family in an area with great public schools. Besides the fact that my wife and I both attended public schools, we didn’t think the ROI was enough to pay for a private school in the areas where we lived. Certainly, had we moved to an area where the public schools were lacking it would have been a consideration. However, in our area, parochial schools cannot compete with the resources in our school district. The point where we would be lacking is solely in the “Catholic” aspect of education. That is why we have religious education programs in our parishes. To put the “Catholic” back in. Besides, the nuns are gone and it is the domestic Church that has the most influence on a child’s relationship with Christ.

Knowing this, our focus on our Catholic kids in public schools is totally wrong. Our Catholic kids are the future of the Church and we are not focused where the majority of our future is schooled. Vocations have dwindled because the Church forgot to pay attention to this resource as our future. Thank God we have Newman Centers at most universities to capture some of these lost opportunities in vocations. Religious education for public school kids needs to become the most important ministry in our parish.  

Sadly, it doesn’t feel this way. 

Instead, these programs struggle. Volunteer teachers who are ill prepared to teach the Catechism regularly face parents who place priorities on kid activities over teaching the faith. How dare Jesus conflict with a soccer  game or dance competition! To soften the blow, many religious education programs include crafts and snacks  to pass the time. Parents today are the children of the 70s generation that the Church forgot to catechize. (They taught us to sing “Kumbaya” instead…) The children of weak faith became the parents of little faith.

One religious education program director proudly told me once, “We don’t teach the Catechism, we teach a relationship with Jesus.” This is akin to a math teacher saying “We don’t teach algebra or calculus, we teach you to love numbers.” Just as we teach children to read before they can appreciate English literature, we must teach our children who Christ is and what he taught before they face a secular society that glorifies sin. Jesus isn’t just “our buddy.” He is the Sovereign of the Universe who loves us enough to want to be in a relationship with us.  

Sadly, too many of our household “theologians” preach a faith divergent of true Catholic teachings. It seems the only area where an eighth-grade level of knowledge is relied upon to substitute for graduate education is in engaging the faith. This is perhaps why the former Speaker of the House confuses “informed conscience” with opinion and millions of babies die for convenience.…

If religious education isn’t a priority for the parents and the parish, it won’t be for the children either. We’ve failed another generation. Hopefully, Bishop Barron, Fr. Mike Schmitz and our Newman Centers can recapture the lost. Meanwhile, let’s stop the process of losing our children now and double our effort on our adolescents and correct the errors of our past.  

Perhaps, we need a “Catholics in Public Schools” week.  

There are parishes who have a proper priority in religious education. We need a better focus on these efforts. We need to publicize the works of faith that our public-school kids are doing. However, we cannot stop there. We need to bring these stories into our own parishes to build better programs locally. 

We lose vocations in public schools because we don’t encourage a foundation for their growth there. Salesmen are taught to “ask for the sale.” How often do we ask and encourage a younger person to consider a vocation to religious life? My vocation was lost in this regard and in measure I failed in this conversation at my own dinner table. This makes me realize that before we can instruct the young, we must find ways to reengage and train the parents.

As a parish we must find new ways to evangelize. Before COVID, we would never think to use Zoom or Teams to meet with people. Now it is commonplace. While meeting in person is always best, we have to recognize that meeting online is a way to reach those who would not engage us otherwise. Bishop Barron has long preached the need for Catholics to use social media to reach those that the “old ways” miss. We cannot have an encounter with Christ if we can’t first encounter the person. As missionaries, we must travel to where they are at.

However, while missionaries embrace the culture, they do not relinquish the faith. God doesn’t grade on a curve so we don’t get to pick our “Top 5” Commandments which we decide to follow. We proclaim the whole truth “without lowering the bar.” Jesus set the standard and we are called to reach for it. Yes, we are happy the child has made it to religious-education class. The family has to come to Mass as well. If it takes a “guitar mass” to get them there, isn’t it worth it? If our children are our future, it is our responsibility to prepare them. As parents, we promised to teach them to know Christ and His Church at their baptism.   

In 2014, approximately 49.8 million children in the U.S. attended public schools; 4.5 million children attended private schools, with 2 million in Catholic schools. Current statistics say only 5% of Catholic kids who never attended Catholic school will go to weekly Mass as adults. It is rather simple math to note where our priorities should lie.

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Written by
Deacon Gregory Webster