Browsing The Northern Cross

Betsy Kneepkens: Let’s appreciate place of non-Catholics in our schools

In this first week of February, the Catholic Church in the United States celebrates Catholic Schools Week. I know this is one of the school children’s favorite weeks because you hear numerous stories of the fun and faithful activities they did.

I think some learning happens, because my children have always come home with homework, but I assure you these kids are having an especially good time each day. These festivities are needed because it is essential that we celebrate the plentiful gifts given to us through Catholic education.

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

Catholic schools throughout the country allow non-Catholic children to attend. In some Catholic schools there are more non-Catholics attending than Catholics. This is particularly common in Catholic schools in neighborhoods that are poverty stricken with failing public educational systems. The success Catholic schools are known for can be most obviously seen in these sorts of situations.

Over the years I have heard some of the faithful sound disgruntled at the fact that Catholic schools accept non-Catholic students. On the other hand, I am intrigued and excited that well-meaning parents are making a decision that brings their family out of its comfort zone for the sake of what they believe will be best for their children.

I don’t think these children should take the place of a Catholic family, but if there is room, w,e should welcome them. I think there are good reasons why Catholic schools, which faithfully proclaim their Catholic identity, should open their doors to those who don’t profess the Catholic faith. I would go so far as to say choosing otherwise could potentially hamper the work of the church.

Unbiased witnesses

When Catholic schools embrace their Catholic identity and permit access to those of different faiths or no faiths at all, these families end up serving as disciples of our faith. What I mean is that the church’s teachings and identity are terribly misrepresented in the media and by those who want our country to be purely secular. These non-Catholic families are a voice that can testify to the truth of what we are, what we truly teach, who we sincerely serve and how we desire to care for those most in need. These families experience this reality through the daily lessons and activities they are exposed to while they are participants in our schools.

The testimony from these individuals has great value, because they can be perceived by others outside the Catholic community as unbiased. As impartial voices, these families often have better access to others who may not be comfortable interacting with the church and positioned better to reach out to individuals who likely are buying into misrepresentations. Every good story these non-Catholic families share about their experience in Catholic schools has the potential to bring an unlikely individual a step closer to the truth and the beauty found within the teachings of the church.

Families that are not Catholic are most often drawn to Catholic schools because of their higher academic standards and strong disciplinary expectations. After they are introduced to the community, I often hear them speak of a deep sense of belonging, an awareness of a difference which they are unable to effectively articulate and their experience of being part of something bigger than themselves.

Interestingly enough, Catholics may not say the same. For Catholics, this type of community is the norm and an experience we simply get used to. We can become immune to noticing a difference. When we allow non-Catholics into this distinct community, they help remind us of how special a community becomes when its foundation is aimed toward the truth and centered on Christ. When this happens, you have non-Catholics evangelizing Catholics on the beauty of their Catholicism.

Sowing seeds of faith

Catholic schools provide seeds for conversion. I am personally aware of several situations where students, teachers and families converted to the Catholic faith after being part of Catholic schools. Often when families that are not Catholic decide to send their children to Catholic schools they minimize the impact exposure to the faith will have.

They learn that being Catholic is not living life where you can compartmentalize your faith. Rather, they learn that Catholics strive to live life in a holistic way, desiring to point everything to Christ. When they are exposed to that lifestyle, it becomes attractive, and they want to know more. When this searching meets the joy lived out by a Catholic lifestyle along with the graces of the Holy Spirit, a conversion is born. There are few institutions in the church that provide better access to collectively living out one’s Catholic faith than a Catholic school. Why would we not want to evangelize non-Catholics in this way?

I am convinced that faithful Catholic schools are instrument for God’s work. I am also saddened that Catholics often get complacent about how important Catholic schools are in handing down our faith as well as evangelizing the larger community. One great opportunity our faith community has for exposing others to the teaching of the Catholic Church is encouraging non-Catholics to attend Catholic schools that passionately strive to fully live out the truth and beauty of the Catholic Church. When this occurs, God’s work materializes as well.

What happens in our Catholic schools certainly deserves more than a week of celebration, but I am guessing teachers would say math and reading lesson need to happen as well.

Betsy Kneepkens is director of marriage and family life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.