At the beginning of my second year of teaching religion in a Catholic high school, I began prompting my students in each lesson with a question that helped them apply that lesson to their own life circumstances. One day, in the middle of a lesson on original sin, I asked the students to write a letter to Jesus telling him what the “forbidden fruit” was in their lives and asking his help to resist it. Because students knew I would be collecting and reading their responses, I did not anticipate anything very serious. I was surprised, therefore, when “Monica” wrote that her forbidden fruit was alcohol. I took her paper to the guidance counselor, who directed me to tell Monica that the counselor would meet with her to help her with this struggle. When I next saw Monica, I passed along this message, awkwardly adding that I thought she was a great girl, and I had spoken to the guidance counselor because I wanted her to be free to receive everything God had for her. “Ok,” she said, and left the room, leaving me convinced I had lost her trust and consequently all hope of bringing her to Jesus. To my astonishment, Monica later asked me to be her Confirmation sponsor. In the course of our sponsor-confirmand meetings, I learned that Monica’s mother was an alcoholic, and Monica was struggling to cope. Because of the school’s intervention, Monica developed the resolve to resist these and other temptations. She gradually became more serious about her faith, more committed to Jesus and to Mass attendance, more consistent in living out what she learned in the classroom.
Monica’s response to this prompt was not an isolated self-disclosure. Over the years, students responded to these kinds of prompts with stories of their alcohol or drug use, sexual activity, suicidal tendencies, self-harm, guilt over believing they caused the death of a schoolmate or friend, as well as more “typical” examples of fallen human selfishness. These and other challenging experiences, chosen or inadvertent, extraordinary or mundane, often hindered their ability to believe in God, trust him, follow him. They illustrated, for me, an important reason why “many…adolescents who have been baptized and been given a systematic catechesis and the sacraments still remain hesitant for a long time about committing their whole lives to Jesus Christ.” Monica taught me that I could more effectively prompt my students to commit themselves to Jesus if I could help them recognize the place they needed him most, which often meant facing their own painful life situations in the light of truth. Day in and day out, the classroom presented me with wonderful opportunities to shine that light, for the sake of helping them begin and grow in intimacy with Jesus.
The Evangelistic Mission of the Catholic School
The Catholic Church views the Catholic school as a critically important place of evangelization. Consider the document The Catholic School, promulgated by the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education in 1977:
Evangelization is, therefore, the mission of the Church…To carry out her saving mission…[the Church] establishes her own schools because she considers them as a privileged means of promoting the formation of the whole man. The Catholic school forms part of the saving mission of the Church, especially for education in the faith.
In three consecutive paragraphs, the Congregation makes it clear that the Catholic school exists primarily for the purpose of evangelizing, that is, for proclaiming the Gospel message to students and for training them to live according to that message. This is not proselytizing or coercion, which would be contrary to the students’ intellectual development and free will. Rather, it is fulfilling the very purpose of a school, which is to form the whole person: mind, body, heart, soul, and spirit. The student is an embodied person who has been given intellect and free will to use to spend eternity with God; therefore, education is meant to offer formation of that intellect and will not just for the sake of getting a good job (though that is important), but for the sake of living this life in such a way as to get to heaven. The very nature of a school makes the Catholic school a genuine instrument of the Church to evangelize.