I read with sorrow the news that 20 Catholic schools in the New York Archdiocese will close. I understand the reasons. The financial havoc wrought by the pandemic has affected so many people, businesses and institutions; it is no surprise that some Catholic schools are among the casualties. But it is deeply sad, and the closings will leave a great void.
They also raise a question and an opportunity: What can we do to counter the effect of the closings? Some students, though saddened by the loss of the school they loved, will be able to enroll at other Catholic schools. But some will not. Can some of what they have lost be replaced?
Catholic education provides more than academics; it provides instruction in the faith and an understanding of life and the world that is grounded in that faith. I know its benefits firsthand because I attended my parish elementary school from kindergarten through eighth grade. The experience shaped my entire life. The Dominican Sisters of Newburgh staffed the school, and they were excellent teachers. Equally important, they gave us a Catholic culture in which to learn, an atmosphere that reinforced our faith and made it part of our daily lives.
This is what a Catholic school provides that no other school can: a sense of being Catholic, of being a member of the Church. Students in a Catholic school have the advantage of learning about their faith every day. They see religious art in their classrooms, and sometimes they attend Mass together. They learn about the saints and the meaning and customs of Advent, Lent and other seasons of the Church year.
I remember what it was like to grow up attending my parish school: Prayers and religion lessons daily; riding my bike to school in May clutching a bouquet of lilacs and lilies of the valley—damp stems wrapped in waxed paper—to place before the statue of the Virgin Mary; classes trooping over to church for Stations of the Cross on Friday afternoons in Lent. It left an impression, spiritually and in other ways.
I don’t want to evoke nostalgia for a bygone era. Hindsight is notoriously inaccurate, and it’s easy to slip into the habit of seeing the past through a filter that blocks the blemishes. Life wasn’t perfect then any more than it is now. To live in the present is to adapt and to find new ways of doing things.
Teaching the faith, of course, is not just the work of Catholic schools. It is carried out with competence and devotion by the many catechists who serve in parish religious education programs. Their hard work, however, can’t really come to full fruition without the support of parents in the place where faith begins and grows: the home.
It is likely that more children now will be enrolled in religious education programs. That means that parents need to take an active role in their children’s education in the faith. There are numerous resources available, in parishes and online. It requires work and commitment; some parents might need to become more familiar with the faith themselves, and be able to defend it, in order to foster it in their kids.
One of the challenges, obviously, is that contemporary culture is largely indifferent to religious faith and often hostile to religion, especially Catholicism. In our media-saturated society, it isn’t easy to ignore the negative commentary or to stand up for Christian faith. But it has never been easy, and part of learning what it means to be a Christian is learning that it comes at a price. The lives of the saints, and of Catholic heroes whether or not they are canonized, is a good place to start.
One more suggestion: Displaying Catholic art and seasonal devotional items—a crucifix, a statue, an Advent wreath—strengthens Catholic identity and the role of the home as “the domestic Church.” So does the presence of Catholic books and periodicals. They convey a message: We are a Catholic family, and where we are, the Church is, too.