by Sr. Carol Cimino, SSJ, Ed.D
Anyone old enough to remember the Baltimore Catechism probably can recall the question and answer format. “Who made me?” was question number one; “God made me,” was the answer. Question number two was, “Why did God make me?” And the answer was: “God made me to know, love and serve God in this world, and be happy with God in the next.”
When the bishops of the United States wrote their document (“To Teach As Jesus Did,” 1972) describing the characteristics of the Catholic school, they went back to the Baltimore Catechism. The purpose of the Catholic school is to help children to know God, to create a community of faith so that the students can love God and each other, and to put all this into action through service. When these elements are present in the Catholic school, then the Catholic school is truly Catholic.
In order to help students to know God, Catholic schools provide a regular course of study of the Gospels, the beliefs of the Church, and the Church’s teachings on everyday challenges faced by young people. Catholic schools invite students to think critically, pitting what they learn in social studies, math, science and the other “secular” subjects against morality, ethics and right living. The curriculum of the Catholic schools meets and exceeds state curricula and is pervaded by students’ knowledge of God.
Thus, the Catholic school does not leave the youngsters adrift in a sea of uncertainty and amoral conclusions. By providing a solid program of study steeped in a pervasive formation of conscience, Catholic schools produce successful students who have a foundation in morality.
Since relationships are so important to young people, Catholic schools invite a community of believers to respect each other as children of God, and to love God through their regular prayer, Mass, observance of religious holy days and reception of the sacraments.
It has been observed that “it takes a village to raise a child.” If that is so, then Catholic schools do that exceedingly well. Recent studies around the success of Catholic schools suggest that their success is due to what is called “social capital;” that is, that the Catholic schools share and enforce the values of parents who send their children to these schools. In that way, parents and families play as much a part in children’s lives as teachers and other school personnel. It is this shared set of values that helps young people to avoid the daily conflict between what they are taught in Catholic school and what they are taught at home. It is also why families can find comfort in the loving community of the Catholic school.
Catholic schools are known for their hospitality, for their welcoming atmosphere and for making children of all faiths feel wanted and loved.
Finally, the New Testament letter of James (2:17) reminds us that “faith without good works is dead.” In Catholic schools, service is not an option; it is a requirement, and without this requirement of service by students, the school is not Catholic. Students in Catholic schools study the social justice teachings of the Church, with the understanding that they are called on to serve their fellow human beings. The vast network of service programs among Catholic schools offers up the true value of a Catholic education: that that education is obtained for the service of others.
It is hoped by Catholic school leaders that their graduates will go on to volunteer in their churches and their communities, to be civic-minded with a conscience, and to stand with the marginalized in their society. In short, Catholic schools produce valuable members of church and home.
People often get caught up in the paucity of nuns and priests in Catholic schools, but the lay men and women who labor in them, without receiving the material compensation that they would in other schools, are continuing this great work of the Catholic church. They strive every day to help their students to know, love and serve by providing outstanding examples themselves. They know they are tasked with creating the next generation of holy people by teaching in these schools and by continually striving to make them as Catholic as possible.
What makes a Catholic school Catholic? Do the “scratch and sniff” test: does the school teach children to know, love, serve? That’s as Catholic as it gets.