Somewhere amid all the things that come with being a high school – the football games, the English classes, the hundreds of extracurricular activities, and all the other things that take up most of a high schooler’s time at school – the Catholic high school has to fit in the Catholicism.
I went to a Jesuit high school: if you were to cut open my skull I think you would find ad maiorem Dei gloriam inscribed on my brain. But the precise impact of the Catholicism, of the school Masses on feast days and theology classes, of the various Catholic phrases that get bandied about, is difficult to evaluate.
It is certainly the case that most graduates of Catholic high schools do not go on to live explicitly sacramental lives. But I will put that aside to discuss what “success” looks like as things currently stand, and to what extent it is even possible to create a flourishing Catholic high school system.
Only so much can be expected from a high school. It will have obligations and concerns besides the presentation of and instruction in Catholicism, and many of the students, through no fault of the school, will not be particularly interested in spiritual things. Teaching anything to people who are uninterested and would rather not be present is rather difficult, let alone teaching it in a way that might change lives.
So Catholic high schools will probably not set the world on fire, and as things currently stand, expecting them to does not make a great deal of sense. Maybe this means that the project of Catholic high schools as we currently have them is a failure. I would be willing to hear that argument out, but, since Catholic high schools are clearly not going anywhere any time soon, it seems more profitable to reflect on what they might be able to accomplish.
Here a story told to me by a high school theology teacher of mine may be helpful. One of the classes he taught was planning its 10-year reunion, and the former students decided that the day’s events should start with Mass. Now, this reunion happened soon after the 2011 changes to the English translation of the Mass, and it quickly became clear that few of the people there had been to Mass recently enough to be aware of the changes, and so they spent Mass mangling the new responses.
To be clear, we should hope for more than getting people to decide to attend Mass occasionally out of some vague sense of cultural obligation. Or perhaps out of a sense that one ought to do such things at a Catholic school. Or maybe even, however unlikely it may seem, out of a piety kindled by the thoughts of their high school. That is not a life of faith.
But it does indicate that the ex-students’ four years at a Catholic high school affected them in some way, and made them think that they should have a Mass at their reunion. Again, it is not a life of faith, but it is something.
The danger here is that the exposure to the Church that happens at a Catholic high school will serve to vaccinate, as it were, the students against Catholicism. When the faith is offered to them in an anodyne, unserious and uninteresting way, students will naturally reject it. That rejection will then lead to them ignoring or thinking little of Catholicism for the rest of their lives – which, although deplorable, is understandable.
But this danger can be avoided if the school makes an effort not to present Catholicism as something that is lame or boring or not worth believing in. What schools can do instead is show that the faith, contrary to what the students might think, is something to be taken seriously. Having priests and religious around the school serves as a sign that the Church is something to which one can dedicate one’s life. Theology teachers who teach as though what the Church says is both true and worth applying to how life should be lived do something similar.
The fruits are not immediately obvious, I will admit. Showing that Catholicism can be taken seriously and be seen as something more than a combination of cultural practices and outmoded superstition is not, in itself, enough to inspire people to live devout lives. But it is a start. If nothing else, it might make the soil a bit more fertile, a bit more receptive to the grace of God later.
It is not much, and I wish Catholic high schools were capable of doing more. But as currently set up they are not, and so we must use them not to achieve the impossible, but to achieve what they are capable of doing. And if the best Catholic high schools can do is merely remove some misconceptions and make Catholicism seem like an attractive option, then we must use them for that as long as we have them.
Steve Larkin is an editorial intern at the US edition of the Catholic Herald