Thursday, June 25, 2009

Why We Need Catholic High Schools

My wife, Diane, and I have four children, ages 14-22, three boys and a girl.

As each one reached their teenage years, we've had to reconcile ourselves to this fact: they'd really prefer we kept our distance. Not, I submit, because they hate us (though there is some truth to the bumper sticker “I embarrass my children”.) Rather, teenagers are trying to establish their own sense of self, and the first step toward doing that is to step outside the huge shadow cast by us as their parents. If we're in favor of something, there's a natural inclination in our teens to disfavor it for a time, simply because they're seeking to find their "voice". Mark Twain once said “When I was 16 my parents were the stupidest people on earth. When I turned 21, I was amazed at how much they had learned in 5 years”.

Particularly during these years, it is important that our teenagers are surrounded by a group of adults who share our values and yes, take the practice of our Christian faith seriously. Sometimes we're tempted to think the opposite: We'll say, “We'll keep them in Catholic elementary schools to learn the “basics”, get the sacraments, but then move them to public or private high schools when the time comes”. But this takes kids away from Christian communities when they need them the most, for when our children are young, as parents we can exert enormous influence in shaping their thoughts, controlling their actions, and insisting on behavior that is appropriate. But our omnipotence is short-lived! Diane and I were feeling self-assured about the job we were doing when our first child was still a little boy, but our confidence began to slip when he turned 11 and “geronimo’ed” out of the second story window of our house to scare his sister! And we've been humbled many times since with each of our teenagers. As they get older, it is increasingly important, not less important, that we surround our children with people who share our values and who are credible, strong witnesses of our faith.

What WE tell them as parents may for a time be regarded with suspicion, but when other adults say the same thing—or better, SHOW them by the way they live—they become powerful influences in the kind of men and women our children become. I was reminded of that last Wednesday at our school assembly when our head football coach participated in a candle ceremony on behalf of the unborn, commemorating the Roe vs. Wade decision. What a striking statement to all the students—and especially the young men-- that someone like him, a “guy’s guy”, thinks the issue is so important.

It’s not just the religion classes. It’s that the practice of faith becomes so routine, so interwoven into the daily life of the high school, so “ordinary” even, that kids don’t even notice they’re doing it—almost like breathing. I think that’s the reason the research shows students who attend a Catholic high school for at least 3 years are half as likely as to convert to another faith and almost half as likely to drop all religious affiliation as adults. Faith has become more integral to who they are and how they think.

As Christian parents, we share one pre-eminent goal for our children: that one day, they will become adults who are disciples of Jesus Christ. In that goal, we need all the help we can get.