Catholic schools in the United States are having a moment. For decades, enrollment in Catholic schools was in decline. However, for the 2021-2022 school year, enrollment was up 3.8 percent. Most of the increase in enrollment can be explained by the utter failure of public-school systems around the country to serve families during the pandemic. The reality is that for more than two years many schools were forcing students into remote learning while Catholic schools were open.
However, remote learning is not the sole reason for the increased enrollment in Catholic schools. As students worked at home, many parents were faced with what was being taught in schools. For the first time, they witnessed firsthand the ideologies being thrust upon their children. Curricula imbued with leftist politics, Critical Race Theory, and gender ideology shocked many parents. As children have returned to school, many parents are startled to learn of school policies that would keep hidden from them the most vital information about their child and their child’s health. Many of these parents, rightly so, are seeking alternatives to their local public school.
This tumult in public education has opened a door not only for Catholic schools but also for the Catholic Church in America. Many parents intuit that there is something wrong with these ideologies, especially as their children are being indoctrinated in them. They may not be able to articulate a Christian anthropology or be well versed in the Theology of the Body, but they know that what their children are being taught is wrong.
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This is a tremendous moment for the Church in America. A Catholic school, rightly oriented, is uniquely situated to offer an alternative to the secular ideologies of our age. As parents seek out our schools, we have a unique opportunity to evangelize them as we teach their children. They have found their public school lacking. It is our job now to give them what they were missing and desperately need.
While this is clearly an opportunity for our schools and Church, there should be an urgency to capitalize on it. Almost all schools are back in person, and many people will eventually succumb to the ideologies they initially found troubling. We now have a captive audience, but it will not last forever. The moment is now to teach our students a proper understanding of the human person and re-evangelize our communities. However, to accomplish this most important work, we must do so both boldly and joyfully.
We cannot be timid or afraid. We must boldly proclaim the truth. For sixty years, Catholic schools have tried to be all things to all people. We have tried to be “welcoming communities” where everyone is accepted and any and all moral propositions are treated as valid. We have tried to not offend anyone so that we could slow the rapid decline in enrollment which almost all of our schools have experienced. We justified this compromising of principles by hoping that if we were nice and not “too Catholic” maybe our students would leave us with a positive experience of the Catholic Church.
To be blunt, that strategy has been a massive failure; and if we continue on that path, we will miss this moment. The contemporary world is not going to be won over with niceness. We must boldly proclaim the Truth of Jesus Christ to our students. We must immerse them in a Christian culture that imparts on them the wisdom and beauty of the Catholic Faith.
There will be those who do not like this boldness, and we will take some criticism. So be it. That is the norm for the Christian. Jesus warned His apostles this would be the case, “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first” (John 15:17). Let us not be lukewarm, let us rise to this occasion and tell the world what it so desperately needs to hear: Jesus Christ is the answer to all that ails us.
However, boldness is not enough. In fact, boldness alone is likely to fail. We must embark on this evangelization with great joy. We must joyfully proclaim the Gospel. It is so easy for the faithful to become embittered and to turn inward. It is easy to feel defeated and to lose hope and to face the world with hostility and resentment. While sometimes understandable, that is not the way of the Gospel. We must be a people of joy.
The Romans marveled at the early martyrs who danced and sang on the way to their martyrdom. We don’t face martyrdom in this country, but we do often face hostility. Let us respond to that hostility with Christian love and joy. Our schools should be, indeed must be, communities of great joy. Students should see their education as a joyful pursuit of truth. We cannot beat our students over the head with truth, we must joyfully immerse them in it. St. Teresa of Avila once said, “Lord, save us from gloomy saints.” Indeed! Let us not be dour in this most important mission, let us rejoice in the opportunity to share the Gospel with our children.
Faithful Catholics often find themselves disoriented in these times. Attacks from the secular world are to be expected, but sometimes the attacks come from within our own Church. The political climate is toxic. There seemingly is always some synod that threatens to split the faithful in the name of inclusiveness. Not many of us have any power to influence politicians or wayward prelates and theologians. What we can do is impact our communities, our parishes, and our schools.
Despite how discouraging things can be, we should remember that we know how this all ends. The tomb was empty. Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Christ will be triumphant in the end. Fortified with this certainty, let us not miss this moment. Many families are running from their public schools; let us give them something to run to. Let us boldly and joyfully pass on the great truths of our Faith to a new generation who desperately needs it. And, one day, we will be able to joyfully watch our students go out into the world spreading the Good News wherever they go.
[Image Credit: St. Benedict Classical Academy]