A group of 350 students took part in Niagara Catholic’s recent trip to Europe. Here, some of them mark the memory with a photo at the Vatican. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Pellegrini / NCDSB

Catholic schools are a vehicle for faith journey

By  John B. Kostoff
  • April 29, 2017

Canada is fortunate to have sociologists like Reginald Bibby working in the field of religious attitudes. His most recent book, Canada’s Catholics, should be on the desk of all administrators, trustees, teachers and priests.

Educators would do well to study some of Bibby’s salient points, such as, there seems to be a phenomenon that even though a percentage of Catholics do not attend Mass regularly they still call themselves Catholic. These are people who, for whatever reason, have distanced themselves from the Church in regular practice but, writes Bibby, cling to the identification of being Catholic.

They continue to accept many Church teachings, pray regularly, believe in an afterlife and follow a host of other religious practices. They relate to the sacraments they grew up with and want for their children. Their attendance at liturgy is once or twice a month but they continue to identify with much of the Catholic faith.

Bibby also points out that even regular Mass goers are not a solid block who subscribe to all Church teachings. There is an honest struggle even among those who attend regularly, as there is with those who do not.

This is a good rebuttal to people who argue that, because many parents of students attending Catholic schools don’t practice regularly, we really don’t have fully faithful Catholic schools. Bibby shows that our schools mirror our parish population. We have students who are deeply living out their faith, others who continue to hold to their faith but do not attend liturgy regularly and others who are not committed to their faith.

His work should cause us to reflect that even though many students skip Mass, they still care about their faith. So schools should not be seen as environments of faithful Catholics and non-practicing Catholics, but rather places where each student is on their own faith journey. This is good news.

Each day our schools welcome Catholic students — or in some cases those who value Catholic principles and education even if they practice another faith tradition — but many students are not as active in their faith practice as we would hope. Bibby’s work challenges us not to shut the door on anyone or set the bar too high on who is and who isn’t Catholic.

Catholic schools provide opportunities for evangelization by delving deeper into our faith and providing an environment for respecting and explaining an alternative world view that sees faith as an essential component in how one lives their life. But Bibby also challenges schools when he writes about the school-parish-family triad.

“What an opportunity for ministry and for evangelization,” he writes. “If the Catholic dream of triangular ministry could take place, where schools increasingly become cultures of caring, working consciously in tandem with the parish personnel — principals and priest and other key players — to maximize life-giving responses, some terrific things could take place.”

Bibby’s work should inspire us to work harder, have more conversations and seek to make our schools distinctive and at the same time inclusive. It should also remind us that students of Catholic schools, like their parents, are on faith journeys, and they attend our schools because they see themselves as Catholics or value what Catholics value.

Educators should use the parable of the woman who looks for the lost coin as a part of their strategic plan. The woman goes to great lengths in a search for her lost treasure, even to the point of appearing foolish, before she finds it and rejoices. Our schools and parishes should be like that, going out of their way to include everyone, even if some deem our actions foolish.

I have sat with many parents deeply saddened by their children apparently leaving the faith. But Bibby says be careful. They may still be struggling with their faith journey and still holding much of what they were taught. I have witnessed these young people return to the Church as they enter adulthood or raise their own children.

Bibby ends his research quoting a Catholic sociologist from Chicago University, Fr. Andrew Greeley, who reminds us of the enormity of the Catholic tent by telling a childhood story he heard from nuns.

“You failed again Peter,” says the Lord.

“What have I done now,” Peter asks.

“You let a lot of people in who don’t belong.”

“I didn’t do it,” Peter protests.

“Well, who did,” asks Jesus.

“You won’t like it,” replies Peter.

“Tell me anyway,” Jesus says.

“I turn them away from the front gate and they go around to the back door and your mother lets them in.”

As Bibby concludes, Canada’s Catholics are a diverse and tenacious bunch “and relatively few are about to leave — even if they have come in through the back door. These days the Church is experiencing a renewed vitality and new hope. The potential exists for significant things to happen.”

And they are happening in our Catholic schools.

(Kostoff is the Executive Director of the Ontario Catholic Supervisory Officers’ Association.)

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