In July of this past year, I became pastor of St. Mary Parish in Charlotte. Like a number of parishes around our diocese, St. Mary is blessed to have a parish school as part of its ministry. To some, it may sound a bit strange to think of a parish school as part of a parish's "ministry," but it has been my experience, having been pastor of two different parishes with schools, that it is vitally important for our parish schools to see themselves as ministry fields, rather than as private schools that happen to be Catholic. I was reminded about why this is so important on the very first day of the current school year.
On that day, we gathered the entire student body, as well as school faculty and staff and a number of parents and grandparents, for the first Mass of the school year. Because it was the first day of a new school year, there was a lot of excitement in the air. Students were gathered, renewing friendships, new students and faculty members were being welcomed to the school community, and it was my first Mass with the school community in my new parish assignment. The Mass was a beautiful way to ask for God's blessings and guidance for our school community as we embarked on a new academic year. To the best of my recollection, the Mass went well – but I honestly don't remember it as clearly as I might. In part, that might have something to do with my now 51-year-old memory banks, but I think it also has something to do with the fact that an incident that happened after Mass has stuck in my mind since that first day of school.
At the conclusion of any school Mass, I have always made it my practice to visit with the kids on their way out of church. That day, I was exchanging greetings and "high fives" with the students as they made their way from the church to the parish hall for lunch. As part of that exiting stream of students, one of our middle schoolers stopped and greeted me and then asked me very plainly, "Father Dwight, can I be baptized and become Catholic?" I have had lots of school students ask me lots of questions through the years. This was the first time that anyone had ever asked me that one.
Beyond the need to provide good academic formation, our parish schools must be places where our students receive good spiritual formation, too. That is true for both Catholic as well as non-Catholic students. The young person who asked me that question on that August morning will be baptized and welcomed into the Catholic Church at Easter this year. Fellow students and his classroom teacher will be helping him to prepare for that day. Truthfully, though, they have been helping in the process for some years now. Why else would a young person, of their own accord, ask to be baptized and be brought into full communion with the Church? The school community – its students and teachers, staff and families, have been encouraging, by their example, and through their lived faith, the spiritual journeys of countless students through the years.
Having a school as part of a parish community is a sacrifice. It is a sacrifice of financial and other material resources. It requires a dedicated faculty and staff who are often not financially compensated for their true worth. Parents and grandparents, general parishioners, and parish service organizations like the Knights of Columbus sacrifice so much in time and treasure in order to support a parish school. Many will ask whether such sacrifice is "worth it." My experience of the first day of school this year tells me that the answer to that question is an unqualified "Yes". And so, our journey in FAITH continues.