A number of years ago (1986), Robert Fulghum wrote a book entitled, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Although many of life’s directions and habits are learned and reinforced at this moment, they do become supported and challenged as one continues the journey through the educational system. I believe if you asked many individuals what the most influential period of time in their educational years was, their answer would be high school.
During those four years, a tremendous transformation occurs not only physically but psychologically. In my own life, it was during these years that I took ownership of my responsibilities toward God and neighbor. It was reinforced by my teachers and the environment created by Catholic education.
Later, I had the privilege of teaching high school for four years during the early days of my priesthood. Students emerged from grammar school immature, socially awkward and unsure of their position in this new community of fellow students. It was during these years that individuals encounter those from other neighborhoods or areas. They began to discover the larger world and the demands made upon them academically and socially. They adhere to a new identity defined by the high school they attend. During these years, they mark academic achievements dealing with successes and challenges in the classroom that mark their daily grind. They discover after-school activities, sharing their interests with others. For some, their talent is on display and develops in plays, musicals and the arts, produced and supported by the high school. Those gifted in athletics compete and carry the banner of their high school, generating the spirit of goodwill and support from fellow students who cheer them on.
High school represents formative years of growth. The friendships that are established last for a lifetime. At various high school reunions, it is in only a matter of minutes that decades disappear, and everyone is back to those high school days, reminiscing about faculty and significant events. I am always amazed when I receive a call from a former high school student wishing to make a connection and informing me of their life as a successful citizen and committed Catholic.
We are blessed to have 16 Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee: Catholic Central in Burlington; St. Mary Springs Academy in Fond Du Lac; St. Joseph Catholic Academy in Kenosha; Dominican in Whitefish Bay; St. Lawrence Seminary in Mount Calvary; St. Catherine’s in Racine; Catholic Memorial in Waukesha; Chesterton Academy in Menomonee Falls; and Divine Savior Holy Angels, St. Anthony, St. Joan Antida, Marquette, Messmer, Pius XI, St. Thomas More and Cristo Rey Jesuit, all in Milwaukee.
Each have their own particular history and have contributed their graduates to the larger community as faithful citizens and believers. Their identity is distinctively Catholic. They have a sense of their responsibility to the larger social structures that surround their lives and are embedded in their studies, and their sense of social justice is grounded in the teachings of the Catholic Church. Their interactions within and outside the community are shaped by a Catholic vision. It is the Catholic teaching and values present in these high school years that hopefully will fashion them throughout the years of their lives.
I realize that many sacrifices are made so that our young men and women can have the advantage of a Catholic high school education, but I would hold that it is the most important investment that one can make in the lives of our young. Parents have asked me why a Catholic high school education is so important. I respond because first and foremost it celebrates “freedom.” We are a nation that fought to establish our freedoms and the very first of all of our freedoms is the “freedom of religion.” It is ironic that one is prohibited from praying or speaking about faith in public schools, but one can readily speak about God and offer prayers in the Catholic high school. I hope parents realize that by offering their children a Catholic education, they are giving them approaches at dealing with the difficulties of life through a faith-filled lens. An important aspect of the Catholic high school is the spiritual life that is formed during these years. A prayer life becomes essential for living well and guiding one’s actions. This spiritual life is established through the retreats, days of recollection and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which are integrated into the high school students’ formation. Living one’s faith always asks if we are doing what God wants from us, and the various spiritual directors, teachers and chaplains examine that question with each of the students.
There are sacrifices that are also made by the benefactors and alumni who understand the gift they received through the efforts of the administration, the faculty and other generous contributors. These benefactors and former alumni make their contributions because they wish to continue the good works they have experienced and share those benefits with others.
I have often said that I am a product of Catholic education. It is a reminder to me of the many faceless individuals who contributed so that I could benefit from the experience. The only way that I will know them and offer my gratitude is through my prayer of thanksgiving for their generosity. They assisted in forming who I am today because they cared about Catholic education.
I ask Catholic parents and grandparents to consider the importance of a Catholic high school education and encourage them to support their daughters and sons or their grandchildren in pursuing their high school years within a Catholic, faith-filled environment. Please take the time to visit your local Catholic high school and talk to former alumni. It is worth the time and effort assisting your child in this most critical decision.
We all have one common vocation, and that is the vocation to holiness. “Loving God with your whole heart, mind and strength and neighbor as self,” is the direction our Catholic high schools offer to their students. Whatever road in life they travel, their ultimate goal would be union with God through his Son Jesus Christ.