Catholic education is celebrated nationally every year at this time as we recognize Catholic Schools Week (Jan. 31-Feb. 6). Perhaps our local news stations will make a quick mention by featuring related activities at various Catholic educational institutions. Simultaneously, recent headlines feature a debate surrounding the voice of “God Bless America” in a South Jersey school. And, at the forefront of the news are stories of ISIS, terrorism and general disrespect of the value of human life. Now more than ever let us reflect on the importance of Catholic education and three of its key values: discovery, formation and experience.
As Pope Francis said in his address to the Congregation for Catholic Education, “the value of dialogue” is imperative in the changing landscape of schools. The student in Catholic school is taught to self-discover, to question and to explore. Faculties are masterful at identifying strengths of students and asking them questions to develop their talents. We can discuss with students their God-given talents and how they can utilize these talents to better their communities.
The discovery phase of Catholic education not only helps to unveil talents in their self-discovery, but also includes finding out about their peers. The ability for Catholic educators to channel discussions in their classrooms, not only about academia, but about how developing a relationship with God, enables one to develop relationships with peers, provides a unique element not found in secular institutions.
Catholic school retreat programs are based on this discovery concept. In allowing a venue for teenagers to reflect on their own self, they can better understand the God-given strengths and weaknesses of themselves and their peers. This self-reflection and group dialogue helps to lead the students to discover who they are and to develop their spiritual being.
All education centers on teaching students information about various concepts in different subjects. Because Catholic schools are centered on the teachings of Jesus, we can encourage formation during the very difficult teenage years. These years are a definitive part of one’s ultimate path, a path that can easily take a wrong turn during high school. At Camden Catholic, as in most Catholic schools, our students consider the school to be their “second home,” and fellow students, faculty, staff and administration their family. It is here that they feel comfortable to discuss their spiritual formation, a respite from the worries of grades and SAT scores. After four years, Camden Catholic graduates have a sense of who they are and where they are going in life, they have a grasp of serving others and they are motivated to take on larger challenges. Catholic education is responsible for the formation of their growth through their faith.
Catholic education is about experiences. Pope Francis reiterated the need for Catholic academic institutions to avoid “isolating themselves in the world,” and instead to “know how to enter, with courage, into the Areopagus of contemporary cultures and to initiate dialogue, aware of the gift they are able to offer to all.”
To discover and form, the students must be offered experiences external of the classroom. It is through these experiences where they will learn how to offer their gifts and talents to others when they enter the “real world” post-graduation. The experience of the Mass regularly to self-reflect, the experience of going on a Right to Life March to proclaim their voice, or the experience of a community service project gives them a larger view of the world. Such events give the student confidence to enter the adult world and make a difference.
It is the Catholic school educator that makes all of these things possible. Beyond being teachers, they are educators who inspire and illuminate the intellectual, moral and social instruction embedded in Jesus’ teachings. They do this with a lesser salary than most, but they do it because they love leading the discovery, guiding the formation and offering the experiences.
It is the parents who make the sacrifices, choosing to pay tuition atop paying taxes in their towns. And no, the number of Catholic high school students is not dwindling. Here at Camden Catholic we have seen an enrollment increase with the last two freshman classes. These Catholic school parents see the value of their dollars in the development of their teenager surrounded in discovery of their talents, formation through faith and exploring through unique experiences.
We celebrate Catholic schools this week but we are very proud all year of the extraordinary community of Catholic school students, graduates, parents and educators.
Mary Whipkey is president of Camden Catholic High School, Cherry Hill.