Catholic schools welcome all - Catholic Courier

Catholic schools welcome all

Brooke Smith fell in love with Irondequoit’s Bishop Kearney High School before she’d even enrolled.

Last fall a pastor at her church, Rochester’s St. Luke Tabernacle Community Church, suggested that she check out the Catholic school after he learned she was unhappy at her public high school.

“I went to orientation, I went to open house, and I met with the principal and I loved it,” Brooke recently recalled.

In the fall Brooke, now 16, will be starting her senior year at Bishop Kearney, which is now known as Bishop Kearney High School | A Golisano Education Partner. Religion classes, liturgies and prayer are a regular part of life for Bishop Kearney students, but Brooke said she doesn’t feel awkward about being a non-Catholic in a Catholic school.

“Not at all, because not everyone there is Catholic,” she said.

Indeed, 19 percent of Bishop Kearney’s student population is Christian but not Catholic, and another 3 percent come from non-Christian faith backgrounds, according to Paul Cypher, the school’s vice president for operations.

Bishop Kearney’s percentage of non-Catholic students is not unusual. For example, 30 percent of students at Rochester’s Nazareth Academy are non-Catholic, according to Susan Hasler, director of enrollment management. These students are Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and students with no religious affiliations.

Thirty percent of the seventh-graders at Brighton’s Our Lady of Mercy High School are non-Catholic, as are 27 percent of the school’s ninth-graders, according to Vilma Goetting, principal. These non-Catholic students are Hindus, Muslims, Protestants and members of nondenominational churches, Goetting said.

Nationwide, non-Catholics accounted for 17.8 percent of all students enrolled in Catholic high schools, and 12.3 percent of all students enrolled in Catholic elementary and middle schools in the U.S. during the 2006-07 school year, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

Meanwhile, in the Rochester Diocese, 80 percent to 90 percent of students enrolled in the six Rochester inner-city schools that receive subsidies through the Wegman Inner City Voucher Program — known as the WIN schools –are non-Catholics, said Patricia Jones, assistant diocesan superintendent for the WIN schools.

Urban schools are not the only ones seeing substantial numbers of non-Catholic students, however.

During the 2005-06 school year, non-Catholic students accounted for 11 percent of the students at Seton Catholic School in Brighton and more than 10 percent of the students at St. Patrick School in Owego, according to principals Sister Kay Lurz and Linda Cvik. Twenty-five percent of the students enrolled for the 2007-08 year at St. Michael School in Penn Yan are not Catholic, said Dr. James Tette, principal.

“That is probably 100 percent an issue … for all of the schools,” said Evelyn Kirst, director of the Catholic- and private-school leadership program at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education. The Warner School helped diocesan educators address the issue of religious diversity in Catholic schools during its annual Summer Institute on Catholic Education July 9-10.

Non-Catholic enrollment in Catholic schools has been rising since the 1960s, perhaps because parents like the values taught in Catholic schools, appreciate the discipline enforced there and are looking for alternatives to the public-school system, Kirst said.

One Protestant parent of three St. Michael students is so pleased with the school that she and her husband recently set up a scholarship fund to help one non-Catholic student per year attend the school, Tette said.

Called to be inclusive

“Catholic Education: Many Spokes, One Wheel” was the theme of the Warner School’s Summer Institute on Catholic Education. Presentations and workshops focused on the challenges of racial, economic and religious diversity in the Catholic-school setting.

“Can we teach our students to recognize and accept diversity as a richness, not as a threat?” Mercy Sister Marie Michele Donnelly asked educators during her July 9 keynote presentation. Sister Donnelly is codirector of Mercy Spiritual Ministries retreat center in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and has taught middle-school, high-school and college students.

Jesus preached inclusivity and lived his life accordingly, and Catholic-school educators are called to follow his example, Sister Donnelly said.

“We have a lot of students in our schools that are not Roman Catholic. Can they be accepted by us? Will they witness us offering hospitality and welcoming the stranger in our midst?” she asked.

Hospitality is one of the hallmarks of the Roman Catholic tradition, so it should be a Catholic school’s mission to proclaim God’s love for all while extending hospitality toward all, Father William Graf said during his workshop titled “Maintaining Catholicism in a Religiously Diverse Catholic School.”

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were the place where anybody different can feel welcome?” asked Father Graf, assistant professor of religious studies at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford. “Diversity is that which makes us different, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be something that divides us.”

“All the kids we have, whether they’re black or white or red, whether they are Italian or speak Greek … all of them are made in the divine image of God. Within each one of them is the spirit of God,” he continued.

Before Catholic-school educators can follow Jesus’ example and nurture the spirit of God in each student, they must first do some soul-searching, Deacon Thomas Driscoll noted in his workshops titled “Prayers and Rituals in a School Setting: Respecting Diversity and Embracing Tradition.” Educators first must discern how they view their own faith and how they think of God, said Deacon Driscoll, pastoral associate at Holy Family Catholic Community in the Southern Tier.

“Once you start picking prayers and rituals, how you design it depends on what your image of God is. If your God is an angry God, that will affect what kind of prayers you pick and activities you do. If you have a particularly angry image of God, it might be that you don’t see God as working in other religious groups,” he said.

An individual’s particular image of God and his or her own faith also will affect the way he or she interacts with students from other faith backgrounds, Deacon Driscoll said. These images and views will help determine whether the individual will respect another’s faith background or try to convert that person, he noted.

Celebrating faith

Being respectful of another’s faith tradition does not mean being ashamed of one’s own Catholic faith and traditions. Rather, these should be actively celebrated, Deacon Driscoll said. Educators working in religiously diverse Catholic schools might have to work a bit harder to find ways to do this, he noted, but it is possible.

One way to do so is by studying the Catholic faith and the other faiths represented in a class, finding links or common ground between those faiths, and then teaching about those links, Deacon Driscoll said. Evangelical Christians, for example, tend to use a lot of Bible-based prayer, so Catholic-school teachers might be able to reach out to those students by using Bible-based prayer in their classroom rituals, he said.

At St. John of Rochester School in Fairport, Catholic and non-Catholic students alike are taught how to serve at the altar and participate in a variety of ways during school Masses, said Eileen O’Neill, principal. Non-Catholic students do everything Catholic students do except receive the Eucharist, and they understand that’s reserved for Catholics and don’t feel left out, she said.

All students at Nazareth Academy and Our Lady of Mercy High School participate in school prayers and Masses, Hasler and Goetting said. If Nazareth students don’t actively participate in the prayers, they are expected to maintain a respectful silence, and students who don’t receive Communion may opt instead to receive a blessing from the priest, Hasler said.

Mercy’s non-Catholic students participate in Masses by singing, reading and doing as much as they feel comfortable during the school’s liturgical functions, Goetting said.

“At the same time they are encouraged to share their thoughts and religious customs, which helps to educate the other students, giving them a global vision of religions in the world,” she said.

Tags: Catholic Schools
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