Getting kids into heaven — that is how Deacon Rob Rysavy, the president of St. Mary’s High School, explained the goal of Catholic education in a conversation recently.
His characterization brought to mind an experience I had earlier in April in the gymnasium at Divine Redeemer School. Catholic Charities of Central Colorado had been chosen as the recipient of the Extreme Lenten Project to collect toiletry items for our community’s poor and vulnerable. I stood in the gym and watched as the sixth-grade class helped load over 1,900 items like toilet paper, shampoo and toothpaste into one of our trucks. It also made me think about the sock drive that students at St. Peter School in Monument participated in last winter. Tricia Faber, the athletic director and volunteer coordinator at Divine Redeemer who had helped organize the toiletry drive, described these types of activities as ways of getting the students to see the corporal works of mercy in action.
For the individuals and families in our community who are battling poverty and homelessness, these basic items will help fill a gap, extend a paycheck and provide relief. They are important donations; however, in the long term, the more important part of the story is the students who helped collect the items. As the future of our communities and our church, the exposure and hands-on experience with the corporal works of mercy is a difference maker. It helps build a generation of people who fundamentally understand the “what” and the “why” of charity. The “why,” as Jesus makes clear in Matthew 25, is how we “inherit the kingdom.”
This is not to suggest that attending a Catholic school is the only way for young people to grow into generous adults. There plenty of charity-minded Catholics who graduated from public schools (including myself) and the work of caring for our poor and vulnerable is carried out by people of all faiths.
But Catholic schools have the immense advantage of being able to integrate Christ’s teaching throughout the curriculum and during the most formative years of life. The presence of daily prayer and theology classes help form young people in ways that public schools simply cannot duplicate. It would be hard for a public high school to match the experience that St. Mary’s juniors get spending an afternoon with Father Joe Dygert interviewing individuals experiencing homelessness in downtown Colorado Springs as a part of a theology lesson on Catholic Social Teaching. There’s no way to replicate the St. Mary’s Students for Life Club, which volunteers monthly at the Marian House.
Catholic schools are vital, not only to the Church, but to our communities, which makes it concerning to see them struggling throughout the nation. According to recent reports, there are about half as many Catholic schools operating in the United States as there were in 1970 when the number was over 11,000. COVID-19 has only made things worse, despite the fact that nationally and locally, our Catholic schools were among the few educational institutions to successfully maintain in-person learning throughout the pandemic.
In the Diocese of Colorado Springs, we have been fortunate to keep all of our schools, but not without struggle. Teachers and administrators who are generally paid less than their public school counterparts have taken cuts in pay to keep the doors open to students. Their sacrifices have been heroic.
As a parent of kids who started in charter schools and transferred to Catholic institutions, I could fill these pages with reasons for parents to give the Catholic schools a try. From an excellent education to the supportive community that surrounds each class, the financial value is exceptional.
But I think the real case for a Catholic education is there in the shampoo from Divine Redeemer, or the socks from St. Peter’s. Those students were acting in accordance with Christ’s commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Our communities are stronger when its people understand and embrace charity and Catholic schools teach it best: through the words of Jesus Christ.