By John Brainard
Director of Catholic Schools
Catholic Schools Week provides us an opportunity each year to celebrate and recognize our Catholic Schools for the gifts they bring to the lives of our children and their families throughout our diocese. St. Columba in Durango, Holy Family in Grand Junction, St. Therese, and St. John Neumann in Pueblo provide our children daily experiences in Christian discipleship and God’s love. I was reading the story of Damien Woody, a former NFL player with the Patriots, Lions, and New York Jets. When he was playing for the New York Jets, Woody sent his children to St. Vincent’s in New York even though his family wasn’t Catholic. At a Christmas concert, another parent asked him why. He answered, “My wife and I believe that a school where they love God will love my children.” As Catholic educators, we want our children to experience our Catholic faith daily and be exposed to a value system that will forever be a part of their lives. Now, more than any time in recent memory, our students must prepare to be a source of moral leadership and energy as Christian disciples in our communities and our Church. Stepping into St. Columba, Holy Family, St. Therese and St. John Neumann students experience the strength, enthusiasm and warmth of learning environments that celebrate our faith as they grow in knowledge, and practice serving others with the gifts that God has given to them.
During Mass recently, I was reminded that as Christian disciples, we are called to live in a “right-relationship” with God and each other. Our administrators, teachers, staff and students strive to model that right-relationship in today’s world. I received a letter from a prospective family considering one of our Catholic schools earlier this month regarding their initial tour of the school. Their experience suggests that our schools are being successful in developing those relationships. The parents said, “The warm welcome we received from the students we met, the friendliness we observed among students, and the respect demonstrated by students during our tour impressed us greatly. Furthermore the open, honest, and sincere answers to our questions and willingness to work with our special circumstances convinced us that this is a school we want our children to be part of.” Of course we stumble at times, and the sacrament of reconciliation reminds all of us that a healthy faith community models forgiveness and reconciliation in all interactions, focusing on forgiving others as Jesus forgives us. This is exemplified by an incident another parent shared with me; “... A staff member disciplined my student in front of the class. After realizing that this embarrassed my child, the staff member set aside time for a special meeting with my student to apologize for embarrassing them …” The parent went on to say that, “I realize that this may sound trivial, but it was a big deal to my child and to me personally that this staff member took steps to address unintended consequences of this behavior. It further afforded me an opportunity to discuss with my child that in life we all make mistakes, but owning those mistakes and making them right is what a good person does.” When we live in a faith filled community, we acknowledge our mistakes and seek to restore our relationships after conflict. In that moment, the staff member “walked the talk” modeling that right-relationship in today’s world.
Those of us who teach at our Catholic schools know that we are called to show compassion for those who have less, to share the gifts God gives to us. Each year we celebrate the heartwarming stories of St. Columba, Holy Family, St. Therese and St. John Neumann student community service projects. The unselfish generosity of our students is exemplified by the community food and clothing drives and the Christmas Shoebox initiatives with Catholic Charities. Our students also join in activities that help develop a tangible understanding and empathy for the hardships others face in our communities. The Catholic Outreach project at Holy Family, the “Caring Pregnancy Center Baby Diaper” drives at St. Therese and St. John Neumann, and the Eyeglasses Drive for the San Lucas Mission at St. Columba are all examples of our student’s compassion. Mrs. McGrath, a teacher at St. Therese, explained, “We involve our students in services projects throughout the school year in hopes they can internalize that helping the less fortunate needs to be a part of their normal way of life”. One eighth grader put this way, “Helping charities opened my mind to wanting to do more for my community. It has brought me closer to God, especially when I see all the happy children.”
Academics are key to helping children grow to become productive members of our church, our local community, and our world. The academic achievement of our Catholic school students is reaffirmed by national assessments placing our schools in the top percentiles annually. The academic preparation of our Catholic school students is also recognized by our various communities with public high schools competing for our students when they leave us at the end of middle school. How many valedictorians, salutatorians, gold or silver chord graduates built their academic foundations in our Catholic schools? I often recall the Catholic student from Pueblo once shared, “High School prepared me for my classes at college; but, my Catholic education enabled me to be successful in college.” Her statement reflects the continuing need for our commitment to prepare our students for the academic and spiritual challenges they will face in the 21st century.
Many believe that Catholic schools succeed because they have greater discipline. There’s something to that, though it helps to remember that the Latin root for the verb “to discipline” is not “to punish” but “to teach.” It’s a lesson that begins with recognizing the God-given dignity of every human being. In short, the Gospel commands us to live in a “right-relationship” with one another, it obliges us to teach our children to treat each person we encounter as we would Christ. That’s not an easy thing to ask of a school, even a Catholic school.