The Great Gift of Catholic Education
4 ways Catholic schools are a blessing to the Church
The first time I ever attended a Catholic school was in my early 20s. Up to that point, I had attended one public school after another, from kindergarten through college.
Public education taught me many useful things: how to read and write; the wonders of math, science and technology; basic historical and geographical facts; and even a few phrases in foreign languages. But, I also picked up many not-so-valuable habits and lessons over the years, due largely to the deficiencies of a secular educational model that sets aside all questions of ultimate meaning and purpose, objective truth and moral goodness.
Upon reading St. Augustine’s Confessions for the first time while in graduate school (I know: It is a bit amazing that I was able to graduate from a highly respected university without ever having read one of the greatest pieces of literature — Catholic or otherwise — in Western civilization!), I was struck by how similar his experience of non-Catholic education was with my own, even though we were separated by more than 1,500 years.
Speaking of his experience with his teachers, he wrote: “They gave no consideration to the use that I might make of the things they forced me to learn. The objective they had in view was merely to satisfy the appetite for wealth and for glory.”
Sadly, this was my experience as well. While we were growing up, if you had asked me or any of my classmates why we had to learn all sorts of ideas and subjects we had very little interest in (especially when there were sports to be played and movies to watch), we would have responded by echoing what our teachers had told us: so we could get into a good college someday. And, if we had been pressed as to why this was important, we would have continued along with some more of the same secular logic: so we can get a good job someday and make a lot of money and a name for ourselves. Or, to borrow the words of the saintly bishop from Hippo, “to satisfy the appetite for wealth and for glory.”
I honestly do not believe that a single classmate of mine before college — and I had hundreds of them — would have thought the true purpose behind all of our learning was to become saints. The notion that when we learn the truth of things we become more like our all-wise, omniscient Creator, and thus become more fully ourselves, was an idea that would have been far more foreign to us than any German or French verb. That our learning to read, write, add, subtract, multiply and divide was intended by God to help us serve him by serving our brothers and sisters was simply never talked about. But college, money and fame were.
Now, I don’t fault my public school teachers for instructing me as they did. I suspect that they were doing the best that they could given their own educational and formational experiences, as well as the restrictions placed upon them by government standards, regulatory agencies and the like. And, to their credit, they did teach me and my classmates many things that are useful and necessary in this world. For their efforts and sacrifices, I am grateful. I am also deeply grateful for the many good people of faith who teach in public schools and are trying their best to infuse their classrooms with God’s truth, goodness and beauty on a daily basis — even if they must do so subtly and subversively in our secular world today.
Upon returning to the Church — in which I had been baptized as a child but not in which I was raised — in my early 20s and upon entering graduate school in Catholic theology, I began to realize just how great a gift Catholic education truly is. In fact, outside of the Faith and the sacraments, I believe that it is the greatest gift the Church has ever given and will continue to give to the world. This is a bold statement, I know. But after experiencing even just one semester of solid Catholic education after a decade-plus of public schooling, it is a gift I will never take for granted going forward.
As a new pastor with a parish school, I am experiencing firsthand how challenging running a Catholic school in the 21st century can be. As anyone connected to Catholic education knows, there are often financial and enrollment concerns, issues surrounding Catholic identity, tensions with parents who do not practice the Faith, difficulties in finding quality, faith-filled staff members, aging buildings and technology to worry about, and the list goes on and on. But, I believe all of these difficulties, as well as the many sacrifices that having a school requires of us, are worth it because of the great good that can come from Catholic education when it is done well. Having said all of this, I would like to suggest four concrete goods that Catholic education uniquely provides — concrete goods that make the difficulties and sacrifices more than worth it and that should inspire us to keep persevering in making Catholic education a priority.
1. Catholic education instills in students the conviction that truth exists and is knowable.
As Pope Benedict XVI so often remarked, our world today is ruled by a “dictatorship of relativism.” We live in a culture and a time that says: There are no absolutes, just many opinions.
It was this destructive philosophy that my classmates and I learned growing up, because even if it was never taught explicitly, it was implicitly behind every lesson we learned outside of math and science. And it is this “doctrine” that has caused so many problems in the lives of my peers: drug use, alcoholism, infidelity, pregnancy outside marriage, addiction, etc.
I am grateful, therefore, to be pastor of a Catholic school where we can teach our young students that truth exists (you may recall Jesus saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life” in John’s Gospel), that truth has a name — Jesus Christ — and that in seeking, knowing and living the truth they will find the freedom to become happy, holy and wholly themselves.
2. Catholic education teaches students their God-given dignity.
Another concrete good that Catholic education uniquely provides is helping students to know they have great worth because they were deliberately created by Almighty God “in his image and likeness.”
As a priest, especially one with a background in psychology, I get to talk with many individuals who struggle with low self-esteem. And while these struggles can be serious at times and are often complex, I cannot help but think our culture would go a long way toward helping all people if we formed our children to know that they were lovingly created by an all-wise, all-good God, as opposed to their existence being explained solely as the result of a random, mindless, godless evolutionary process. (I am not criticizing all evolutionary theory, just that which is often taught and denies the God who directs it along with all of history.)
I am grateful to God, therefore, to be a pastor with a Catholic school where we can teach our students their great dignity and how to honor and respect the dignity of others, from conception all the way into eternity. In other words, we can teach them that every single one of us matters — so much so that Jesus Christ died for us.
3. Catholic education forms students in moral virtue.
All reasonable people know there are consequences in life. Sadly, many people today either do not realize this or want to deny this for ulterior motives.
Nevertheless, a fact is a fact.
One of the consequences of living in our world today — a world that denies the existence of absolute truth and denies (at least in practice) the inherent dignity of every human person — is that we no longer can agree upon what the good life looks like. And, thus, we live in a broken culture where violence, hatred, lying, cheating, etc., are all regular behaviors.
This is yet another reason why I am grateful to be pastor of a Catholic school, a place where we can teach our students about the Beatitudes, about the Ten Commandments and about the cardinal and theological virtues; where discussions about how to better practice generosity, honesty, faithfulness, magnanimity, respect, reverence, justice and love are regular behaviors!
4. Catholic education offers all of us hope.
Finally, Catholic education offers the Church and the world hope for the future and into eternity. It offers us hope that there will be a Church in future generations to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. It offers us hope that there will be an American citizenry in the future who knows how to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s but also to God the things that are God’s. It offers us hope that there will be doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, business leaders, government leaders and working-class people who are using their God-given talents to serve the King of Kings as well as their brothers and sisters.
It offers us hope that God will continue to raise up young men and women to serve him as priests and religious. And, it offers us the hope that heaven will be much more crowded one day.
A few months ago, I celebrated holy Mass with all of our school students. In the homily, I told the students that they are all superheroes. They all looked at me a bit confused, but then I asked them what superheroes have that regular people do not. A few hands shot up, and I called on one of the students. “Superpowers, Father. They have superpowers.” “Exactly!” I said. “And so, too, do you. At your baptism, Almighty God gave each of you the power of the Holy Spirit to help you to do what you cannot do on your own — namely, to love him and to selflessly, sacrificially love others.”
Prayer for Teachers
Heavenly Father, who promised that all those who instruct others in the ways of holiness will shine as stars for all eternity, fill our hearts and minds with true knowledge and the art of teaching. Give us patience and understanding, justice and prudence, humility and fear of the Lord. Grant us wisdom and charity so that with a pure and holy love of God we ourselves may enjoy all these gifts and impart them to our students.
Teach our children to be obedient to your laws and open to your inspiration. Let them be instruments of your peace in their homes, in our land, and in the family of nations as they become children of God in the mystical Body of Christ.
May the blessings of your sevenfold gifts be in all who teach and in all who learn through the Holy Spirit who is the love of the Father and the Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ — the Divine Teacher.
Source: Catholic Family Prayer Book (OSV)
After the homily, I continued on with Mass and didn’t think twice about what I said, although I did hope God would plant a few seeds in the hearts and minds of the students. A couple weeks after this Mass, one of our school parents shared with my staff that the night before, while they were eating dinner, her son suddenly said, “Hey Mom, did you know that I am a superhero?” She responded somewhat skeptically, “You are, huh?” The boy continued, “Yeah! Father Scott said so at Mass one day. I have the superpower to love God and to love others!”
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His mother shared the story because she was so impressed. I was even more so, as the young man is only in first grade! But, God willing, he will continue to grow into the saint that God calls him to be and, one day, he will be in heaven. And that is why I continue to promote the gift of Catholic education!
Father Scott Jablonski was ordained as a priest of the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, in 2014. He is the pastor of Blessed Trinity Catholic Parish, which has worship sites in Lodi, Wisconsin, and Dane, Wisconsin.