It is easy for Catholic educators to love our students. Hour after hour and day after day, we forge human and spiritual bonds with them by learning, laughing, praying, and playing.
The Congregation for Catholic Education calls upon Catholic educators to provide “a community school climate that reproduces, as far as possible, the warm and intimate atmosphere of family life” (The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School: Guidelines for Reflection and Renewal, 40). The Catholic school does not try to replace family; instead we benefit from its natural strength in human formation and support its educational aims. We understand that “an integration of school and home is an essential condition for the birth and development of all of the potential which these children manifest,” including their openness to religion with all that this implies.
There is great benefit, then, for Catholic educators to focus on the family’s unique role in education and evangelization and to explore how we can best assist them, so they might better fulfill that role in relation to their children, the Church, and society. In so doing, we are faithful to our own mission. “Catholic schools consider essential to their mission the service of permanent formation offered to families” (Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School, 48).
Responsibilities of the family
It is important that Catholic educators understand and make better understood the role of the family. Vatican II’s document on education, Gravissimum Educationis, is a good place to start:
Parents are the ones who must create a family atmosphere animated by love and respect for God and man, in which the well-rounded personal and social education of children is fostered. Hence the family is the first school of the social virtues that every society needs… It is particularly in the Christian family, enriched by the grace and the office of the sacrament of Matrimony, that from the earliest years children should be taught, according to the faith received in Baptism, to have a knowledge of God, to worship Him and to love their neighbor.
St. John Paul II develops this understanding in his apostolic exhortation to the family in the modern world, Familiaris Consortio. He draws attention to the truth declared by Vatican II that the family is “the first and vital cell of society.” It is, he writes, “a community of life and love” which “has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love, and this is a living reflection of and a real sharing in God’s love for humanity and the love of Christ the Lord for the Church His bride.” He identifies four general tasks of the family:
1) forming a community of persons,
2) serving life,
3) participating in the development of society, and
4) sharing in the life and mission of the Church.
It is the duty of Catholic educators to support this mission, particularly through partnering in the formation of the young, but also in empowering the family toward these broader ends.
Challenges facing our families
Most of Catholic school parents are now Millennials (born 1981-1996). Millennials are more interested in being involved in their kids’ lives than the prior generation, so we can be bolder in engaging with them in their children’s education. However, we must also appreciate that more of them are single parents (33 percent), live in dual-income households (60 percent), and are stressed and tired most of the time (29 percent) (“Millennial Moms and Dads are Striving to Parent Differently Than Boomers,” Salon, Jan. 26, 2023).
According to a Pew Research Center poll in January 2023, mental health tops the list of parental concerns about their children’s well-being. Four out of ten parents are extremely worried about their children struggling with anxiety or mental depression, and 36 percent are somewhat worried. More than a third (35 percent) are extremely worried about their children being bullied, and 39 percent are somewhat worried.
Pew Research also finds that, among our Catholic Millennials, 84 percent say religion is important or somewhat important to them, and 65 percent pray daily or weekly. These are workable numbers. But only 26 percent go to Mass weekly; 80 percent do not believe there are clear standards of right and wrong, 75 percent favor same-sex “marriage,” and 52 percent think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. So we have our work cut out for us on these points.
Currently, 64 percent of Americans identify as Christian, and Christians are predicted to be a minority by 2070, which is when our current grade school students will be raising their own children. So there are even more challenging times ahead, but also opportunities for which our students and their future families must be prepared.
Reaching out to parents
In regard to our current parents, we need to draw upon their generally positive outlook on religion, encourage them to better understand their vocation as families, and get them back to Mass and a coherent moral program. In this way our students, their own children, will themselves be better equipped to survive and evangelize as religious minorities in a post-Christian, post-truth world.
Primarily this will occur for parents through deepening their encounter with the living God, who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth. While the Holy Spirit will be the protagonist and helper in this dynamic, Catholic educators should do all they can to help. And one of our greatest assets is drawing on children as points of parent evangelization.
A first step for Catholic schools is to fulfill their duty of faithful and dynamic evangelization of the children entrusted to them. When they become fully alive disciples, they will attract others, including likely their own parents.
Additionally, the Catholic school at some point must actually and specifically invite students who are not baptized or are not active Catholics into the fullness of life as faithful Catholics. It is very important for a staff member, or preferably a priest connected to the school, to actually inquire and make the ask at some point. Families may have identified as Catholic or Christian to get into the school, but it is possible some students from Catholic families may not have actually been baptized or non-Catholic students may now be convicted of the truths of the faith. For example, a new pastor at a faithful Catholic school recently asked to meet individually with each of the 310 students for discussion or confession. As a result, three students and eventually their parents sought baptism or full communion with the Church. The principal had been unaware that the children and families were hungry for the sacraments, but all the priest had to do was ask and follow up with RCIA.
Parent formation is another area for mission growth at a Catholic school. This can be challenging given the busyness of so many families. One strategy is to create mandatory formation nights for new parents, and then also offer ongoing formation nights for all parents every year (hopefully the new parents will continue).See Community and Culture Nights at https://donahueacademy.org/community/community-culture/ for an example of this.
This will take an investment of time and money, but volunteers and donors will likely step forward. For new families, make these formation nights not just mandatory but also delightful. Provide free childcare; start with a wine and cheese affair, tastefully appointed; give away school bling or door prizes; have name tags; have live music from students or community members; have three meetings in the first year to dynamically explain your mission; have parent, student, and teacher testimonials; show off your best teachers and students in brief presentations; keep the evening to 90 minutes maximum; take attendance; and tape the event and have those who did not make it watch the podcast. The idea is to make sure the new parents know the Catholic mission, start integrating into the school culture, and invest in it.
For ongoing formation nights for all parents, keep the same kind of fancy “date-night” experience with good food, music, drink, and childcare, but broaden the topics to address ongoing areas of parent and family formation. These gatherings could be at school, a local nice venue, or even at parents’ houses. Topics might include: social media and your child, cultivating authentic friendship, freedom and your child, Theology of the Body and courtship, virtue, and helping your child take up their cross.
Some other concrete ideas
- Build a culture of family via the weekly school communication vehicle, by celebrating publicly that week’s anniversaries and recent births.
- Require as a condition of enrollment that parents agree to make every effort to take their children to church each weekend.
- Invite parents to all school Masses and processions.
- Say grace before meals and snacks at school, in the hope this simple practice will take purchase at home if not already present.
- Frequent Eucharistic adoration during the school year at school with the expectation that, if possible, students will spend 30 minutes in adoration at their parish church once each semester, and the parents will sign off on the form (and presumably take them and go themselves as well).
- Teachers should intentionally create homework assignments that also target and involve the parents. For example:
- Discuss with your child this passage from Scripture.
- Think-pair-share homework assignments that involve parent participation.
- To prepare for the quiz, have your parents use these flashcards.
- Have the parents sign off on each religion homework assignment that they have reviewed for completeness and accuracy.
- Have assignments or extra credit work which involve grandparents if possible.
- Assign them to watch a streamable movie at home with a religious theme, and have parent/child discussion questions for them to complete.
- Resources for parents to create voluntary pledge groups whereby they assure that when students gather at their house, there will be an active parent presence in the home, no R-rated movies, sexually explicit music, violent video games, or alcohol, etc. For example, see the pledge at rethinkthedrinks.com.
- Resources for parents to reduce screen time and social media in their homes, such as the “Postman Pledge” by Front Porch Republic.
- Ensure all families have access to resources like the Formed network.
- Establish a school-recommended list of films for families seeking something to watch together.
- Rich access through a kiosk in school or sending to each family resources from the Knights of Columbus “The Building the Domestic Church Series.”
This is not an exhaustive list, but simply a few ideas to remind us all to find creative ways to support and love both our students and their families.