It has become a bit of a tradition for me to write about Catholic schools and Catholic education for my February columns. Catholic Schools Week typically straddles the last week of January and the first week of February, which prompts me to bring to light the many amazing aspects of a Catholic education.
I have always had an unusual passion for this sort of academic formation and have enjoyed watching its positive contribution to society. This fervor has existed inside of me since I was a young child. I vividly remember thinking how fortunate I was that my 12 siblings and I were given the gift of a Catholic education by our parents, a sacrifice that must have been demanding and a hardship to which their children were oblivious at the time.
I certainly get it now. I attended Catholic institutions from first grade through my graduate work in education. Outside of my family, I can't think of anything that has had a greater impact on my formation.
In some ways it is an odd passion. Others are p assionate about mountain climbing, football, cooking. I just have a strong hunger to see Catholic schools, and therefore children, thrive.
I celebrate when exciting things happen in Catholic schools, when a school opens or opportunities are expanded. I have a difficult time when I hear of any Catholic school opportunities being reduced for children.
Although it does not affect my children directly, I felt a deep sadness when, in the Diocese of Duluth,
St. Rose School had to close its doors because of low enrollment, and when St. Thomas in International Falls reduced its offerings to pre-K to fourth grade.
I believe for the vast majority of Catholic children, a Catholic school education provides the most holistic, rightly prioritized, positive, communal, Christ-centered formation.
I am not saying Catholic schools are perfect. Catholic schools are a communion of imperfect people. I am just saying they have their oars going in the right direction from the beginning.
Are there not enough children to fill the Catholic schools in our diocese? I would argue that there are plenty of Catholic children and possibly not enough room to serve all of them who could benefit from a Catholic education in our diocese. Expansion should be needed.
I have reflected on why we are not seeing the growth we ought to see. I think many families know there is a Catholic school in their neighborhood. I just don't think they know what is in that school. Every family that sends its children to Catholic schools should invite other Catholic families to experience the good news about the formation that happens in our Catholic schools.
Some may argue that they do not have the financial means to send their children to Catholic schools. I say this is not a family problem, this is a parish and a diocese problem. The message that any parent who wants to send children to a Catholic school may do so, and assistance will be provided if needed, is accurate, yet it's still obviously not heard by all.
This must change. Money cannot be the reason children are being denied a formation that echoes the formation at home.
Pope Benedict XVI said this about the expectation of Catholic education: "It also provides a highly commendable opportunity for the entire Catholic community to contribute generously to the financial needs of our institutions. Their long-term sustainability must be assured. Indeed, everything possible must be done, in cooperation with the wider community, to ensure that they are accessible to people of all social and economic strata. No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation."
Some may argue that transportation is the reason they do not send their children to a Catholic school. This may very well be the case. However, that concern should be brought to the nearest Catholic school or to the diocese offices so the matter could be investigated and creative options could be made available. If a Catholic family wants a child to go to Catholic schools, we must figure out a way to get them there.
Many families in our diocese homeschool their children. Homeschooling does provide a particularly beautiful model for educating children in our Catholic faith and other subjects that are different from the classroom setting. Some children absolutely thrive in this environment alone. Families that homeschool are often model Catholic families and find great support among other homeschooled families. Like a Catholic school, they have indeed put their faith at the center of all that they do and all that they learn.
It seems some of these homeschooled children would thrive equally in the school environment. The striving toward holiness I have seen modeled in the homeschooled families would bring a great treasure to our Catholic schools.
Those children could serve an additional purpose in Christ by attending the parochial schools. I am certain these families would bring a model of a well-lived domestic church to the other children and families in Catholic schools. A Catholic school could never have enough exemplary Catholic families, and the way I have seen homeschool families live out the Gospel, their attendance would be an additional asset to any Catholic school environment.
There may be other obstacles preventing families from attending our Catholic schools. However, nothing is impossible with God. We must identify these issues and work to find solutions.
In essence, as Pope Benedict said, the church has an obligation to offer Catholic education to every Catholic family if possible. If the church has an obligation to offer this, should we not feel a sense of responsibility to break down barriers that are preventing families from having access and creating a desire and obligation to have children educated in this way wherever possible?
We as a church should acknowledge and hold up families, parishes and parishioners that continue to support our diocesan Catholic education system. The formation of these children is vital to the future of our church and our nation. If you haven't recently considered a Catholic school, you owe it to your family to see how this story of excellence and faith has developed.
Catholic Schools Week is the beginning of next year's enrollment period. I am certain that they would be excited for you to attend an upcoming open house or kindergarten round-up. You can also simply call the school office for an appointment. Please go and find out what I am so passionate about!
Betsy Kneepkens is director of marriage and family life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.