Tuesday, July 31, 2007

What is Distinctive About Catholic Schools?

Note: This talk was given to the high school's new families on July 30 as part of new family orientation.

Welcome new families! Welcome back to those families who are making a second loop through the high school with a different child.

As I begin my 22nd year here, I’d like to reflect on what I think is unique about Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School. There are some very good college preparatory schools in Montgomery. MA and St. James are excellent private schools, whereas LAMP is an excellent public school. But as good as we believe these schools are, we do not aspire to be like them. We are, rather, a Catholic high school, and because of that, we are distinct from every other high school in East Montgomery. It’s a distinctiveness we embrace.

The heart of that distinction is contained in our mission statement, which says as adults, we share in the responsibility to help children grow into persons of faith, virtue and wisdom.

Faith, virtue and wisdom: if you’ve been paying attention to our brochures, our video, or our web page, we’ve been using these words a great deal.

By faith, we mean faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. The acid test of any Christian school, any Catholic school, is this: does it help kids become holy? We believe that each child is a unique creation from God, and that God has a unique destiny for each student. Our job as adults—yours as parents, ours as teachers-- is to cooperate with God’s grace in the lives our teenagers to help them realize God’s will for them. We know that if they do that, they will become the "best version of themselves" and be truly happy. St. Iraneaus had this in mind, I believe, when he said “The glory of the Lord is the human person fully alive”.

Catholic schools provide an optimum setting for becoming "fully alive" not by providing spectacular, extraordinary religious events that stir the student’s faith, but the opposite: immersing students in a community in which a Catholic and Christian world view is so commonplace, so much a part of their lives, that it almost goes unnoticed. For example, we pray all the time around here—before school, as part of school liturgies, before games, with teams in the locker-rooms. We begin classes, often inviting students to pray for things of concern to them. These are typically practical prayers—they pray not for world peace, but so that everyone does well on the test they’re about to take, or for their friend who is sick, or for a special intention. Because it’s so much what we do, it never occurs to even the most macho boy how humbling it is to ask a peer to pray for him. And it’s not just that we teach religion for four years. It’s that we teach it as an academic subject alongside Calculus, or Physics, and that it counts equally into school grade point averages. The result is that it rarely occurs to kids they're giving equal attention to the study of their faith as to Calculus! Just as we don’t notice breathing, we want our faith to be so much of who we are and what we do that we don’t notice we’re doing it.

Virtue. We also want our students to live virtuously. Let’s be blunt. Our children are growing up in a cynical, jaded world that caricatures belief as childish nonsense. There is a natural idealism in our youth but it is too often extinguished by a pervasive cynicism that tells them that a moral life is impossible and that they are prudes to try. Our job—yours and mine—is to challenge their nobler instincts and to show them, through our example, that living out the gospel is not only possible, but noble and right, and yes, even "cool".

Wisdom. Of course, we want our children to be ready for college, as our school name implies. But we want more than that; we want students to be wise, to possess the ability to discern truth from noise, to see clearly what is good and right and to have the courage to act on that vision.

Whose responsibility, then, is it to help children become faithful, virtuous and wise? Our mission statement states it clearly: it’s the adult community’s. Yours and mine.

A strange thing happens to us as parents when our kids become teenagers. When our kids were little, they took what we said as truth on its face. When our kids become teenagers, BECAUSE we said it, it’s false on its face. But here’s the key insight. Someone else’s parent may tell our children the same thing we’ve been trying to tell them, and they regard that parent as a guru-like sage. This is because teenagers are trying so desperately to establish their own identities, and we as parents cast such large shadows, they have to step back from that shadow to begin to establish who they are. But they are still looking for authentic, credible examples upon which to model their lives. So what we need to do is agree together to help each other raise our sons and daughters for a time.

By virtue of being a parent or a teacher in our school, I challenge you to now regard yourself as a member of an extended family. No--aunts, uncles and cousins are not the same as parents, who remain sovereign over their children. But aunts, uncles and cousins do care deeply for their relatives, they do take opportunities to teach them, they keep an eye on each other. Let us agree, as adults, to be that kind of adult presence in the lives our kids. As a parent of a sophomore boy, I welcome phone calls from you if you hear he’s doing some things he shouldn’t be doing, and I hope you will welcome my calls to you. This is what it means to be a family. This is what it means to be part of a community. This is what it means to be a Catholic school.

I’d like to end my segment tonight by passing on to you two recommendations as your child begins high school here:

First, I think we all know that we cannot force our children to join this or that particular club or team, or become part of this extra-curricular activity. We may want our kid to play football, but it’s important that he decides. BUT, I think we can push very strongly with our child that he or she gets involved, as quickly as possible, with at least ONE thing, whatever he or she desires. When our kids play sports, become part of the key club, run for student government, join our government club—whatever—high school becomes a place of joy. They meet new friends, they learn about compromise, they experience ups and downs. Most of all, they become connected. Insist with your child they do at least one thing.

Second, insist with yourself that YOU become involved in at least one new thing as a parent. Whether that’s as an active Booster Club member, a PTO member, helping out with the bookstore, working in the concession stand, get involved. It is SUCH a blessing to get to know the wonderful parents and teachers in this community.

In just a flash of an instant, your child will be graduating. In three weeks, I take my only daughter to college…gulp….and though it's a cliche, it seems like just yesterday she was coming through these doors as a wide eyed freshman. When our kids leave us, we don’t want to look back on our lives and say “I wish I was more involved…I wish I had done this…or that”. Get involved.

The truth is, as much as our kids need a place like Catholic to help them learn to be people of faith, virtue and wisdom, I sometimes think that we as parents might need it more than our children. Seeing the world again through the eyes of our children, we can rediscover what many of us have lost as adults: a sense of wonder and a renewed "respect" (literally, a second look) for our faith and all the gifts God has so richly blessed us with.

I hope it’s a wonderful year for your child and for your family.

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