I am sure that there would be an argument over which has the greater influence over one’s personal development, the high school or college years. Although the college years certainly provide life choice decision-making, the high school years are often for many the years of personal empowerment. One leaves the safe confines of the neighborhood grammar school to begin interacting with a community and developing the skills necessary to make a contribution to the society.
Recently, I celebrated the 50th anniversary year of my graduation (1967) from seminary high school. As I attended the class reunion, it was obvious to me the great affection that my fellow classmates retained for those high school years. Many, now decades later, appreciated the sacrifices made by parents, faculty and fellow classmates for the influence, which left lasting imprints on their character development.
As archbishop of Milwaukee, I am very proud of the quality of Catholic high schools present in the archdiocese that provides secondary educational opportunities to our students. There is little doubt in my mind of their academic excellence but there is so much more than academic excellence, especially in the environment that the high school creates. This is the rich soil that produces the leaders of tomorrow.
At the beginning of my tenure as archbishop, I offered my three directions for the Archdiocese: Catholic identity, evangelization and stewardship. The Catholic high school communities preserve and promote these three directions. A high school student attending a Catholic high school is immediately connected to the tradition of a religion that has made significant contributions to our entire society. It would be a shame if a Catholic student failed to recognize and celebrate the contributions of the Church to the growth of our community.
During the high school years, the student learns more about their faith, which has created the figures who have passionately lived their life for others in the name of the love of Christ. The teachings of the Church are integrated into the life of the student. Catholic identity helps define the student in relationship to the world in which he/she lives. The Catholic student is a believer. God is a central focus in one’s life. Unraveling the mysteries of the Divine helps in understanding God’s purpose for our lives. The incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection and ascension introduces the student to the person of Jesus, whose life is given for our salvation. It is so very necessary that a person be able to defend and promote Catholicism. We live in a world that rejects God and the importance of religion. The high school years ground the student in the understanding that will be at his/her disposal during those vulnerable college years.
A relationship with Jesus is critical to living well in a world filled with adversity. When one enters into college, you will hear some professors say, “Remember students, during your years of study, as the philosopher says, ‘know thy self.’” I contend that one cannot fully know oneself apart from the person of Jesus, who is the perfect reflection of the Father. “I am the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through me.” The Catholic high school student has a head start, which begins their journey of self-awareness early in the spiritual life, knowing they have a partner, and a place that is home called the “Church.”
As Christians, we accept the great commissioning given by our Lord Jesus Christ, “Go out, preach, teach and baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We are called to spread the Gospel. The high school years empower us to share our faith. I have often said that a Catholic high school student is freer in the exercise of their academic curiosity and freedom of expression than his public school counterpart is. In the Catholic high school, one can talk about God, debate His existence and one can pray. These actions certainly are questionable in a state-sponsored school climate.
There are three aspects to evangelization: 1) to introduce Jesus to those who are outside our faith; 2) to ignite a fire in those that have allowed the faith to become dormant, and; 3) to deepen one’s own commitment and relationship.
Every Catholic high school offers opportunities for the student to share their faith. In domestic outreach to those in need, the student is empowered to be Christ for one’s neighbor. Some schools even provide mission projects that introduce students to serving in a foreign country. Faith joins them together and connects them to those that have far less than they do. For many, it’s a life-changing experience. Whether at home or abroad, they are instruments of God’s love and representatives of the Church, and the social teachings of the Church are put into action through the service they provide.
Think of everything that competes for a high school student’s attention — iPads, iPhones, computers, etc. to introduce the students to the ability to serve others is an invitation to change the world.
The high school presents a focus that draws attention to the ability to be agents of change.
Stewardship is acknowledging that all we have is not ours exclusively, but rather gifts from God. And, it is our responsibility to share the gifts with others. In academics, sports and the arts, the school community assists in developing our skills through competition, presentations and sharing. Although there are some in our society that promote a “radical individualism,” the Catholic high school challenges the student to use their resources in a manner that maximizes them for the greater good. The students are introduced to the examples of the heroes and heroines of the faith called the saints, whose lives were spent doing good in the name of the Lord. The world vision of the Church encourages the student to accept their responsibility for the dignity of the human person, the poor, as well as our environment.
We are blessed to have 15 Catholic high schools that offer solid programs of intellectual, social and spiritual formation. The students will carry with them the imprint of faith that will challenge them for their entire life. I know that every parent desires a good life for their children; the Catholic high school prepares them for a good life now and the life to come.