Picture this fictional, yet accurate, scenerio: It’s 1959, and St. Procopius Catholic School is flourishing. There are two of every grade and 18 religious sisters who serve the students. Sister Mary Pius has recently told all the eighth-grade boys that God may be calling them to the priesthood, and six of her girls are going out to the motherhouse in the spring to talk about joining the order after high school. Sister Walburga is getting the seventh graders ready to start the algebra textbook. Sister Mary Regina is teaching the second graders on how to receive Holy Communion (using Necco wafers). Father Keller is helping the fifth-grade servers learn the Latin responses. And the rest of the student body devoutly believes that Ora pro nobis is really “O, rubber noses.” This Catholic parish and school have created a loving community that immerses over 900 families in their faith. It is their whole world.
Flash forward 50 years to St. Procopius: There are 306 students in the school, and about 45 percent are Catholic. The religious sisters have all retired and lay men and women teach now. St. Procopius is still an exceptional academic school. But, to many, it appears to be a private school that happens to be Catholic rather than a Catholic school that happens to be private. Families from outside the parish send their children there for an excellent education, and faith is secondary.
So where does that leave us, the hope-filled faithful, who want our memories of the past to be the vision of the future?
I believe we need to see Catholic schools for what they were originally intended to be: a playing field for evangelization. Our grandparents invested in these schools because they believed that fertile ground was necessary for planting the seeds of faith.
We have an amazing opportunity to bring whole families back to the practice of faith if we play our cards right. In my years as a Catholic educator, nothing has been more rewarding than seeing parents and their children baptized at the Easter Vigil because a teacher, principal, or DRE invited them to become Catholic. There is no finer moment for me than welcoming a newly baptized student back to that first school Mass after Easter and seeing him or her receive Eucharist with the rest of the student body. For you see, Catholic schools are not only about forming minds and bodies. We are there to form souls, and that makes all the difference. Our grandparents knew it, lived it, and literally bet their last bottom dollar on it.
Instead of getting lost in things of the past, let’s begin something new: Catholic schools where the faculty is passionate about their Catholic faith and teach the gospel in everything they do; school families who attend the parish Mass on Sunday and know that school and parish go hand in hand; students who pray and live faith in every aspect of their lives. The vision and the mission have not changed in 50 years. God is beginning something new. God is asking you and me to reach out and evangelize the unchurched in our Catholic schools. We have a marvelous opportunity to help the Kingdom come.