By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY, Archbishop of Atlanta | Published February 7, 2008
We began what I pray will be a longstanding tradition in the Archdiocese of Atlanta last Saturday evening by concluding Catholic Schools Week with a banquet to honor some members of our Catholic schools for their extraordinary service to the students and parents of these fine institutions. The evening, however, was somewhat peculiar because there were no students in attendance.
The event was exclusively dedicated to thanking the adults who make Catholic schools possible and successful throughout this local Church. Teachers, coaches, admissions personnel, maintenance staff, administrators and development officers all collaborate with parents, pastors and parishioners in providing the environment of faith and learning that have made Catholic schools in this nation a particular and unique treasure—and not just for Catholics.
I am a Catholic today because of a Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Chicago. St. Carthage was a small parish school on the south side of Chicago. The 1950s saw swift and sweeping neighborhood racial changes in the city, drastically impacting parish school populations, so the pastor of the parish at the time and the Adrian Dominican principal decided to invite non-Catholics who were largely African-Americans to enroll in the school.
I was one of those invited non-Catholic kids.
St. Carthage had eight Adrians on staff, two lay teachers and a part-time dance teacher by the name of Mrs. Green who helped put on a spring musical talent show each year. It was a pretty lean but incredibly dedicated staff.
Tuition was $40 a year for the family rate and $30 a year for a single student. There was a book fee of $10 per student and a testing fee of $2. Classrooms had about 40 students respectively. Almost every child walked to school—and then home for lunch and back to class. Obviously things have changed—a lot! And simply looking at what the 1950s were like will not allow us to return to those days—gasoline was then between 14 and 19 cents a gallon. The world has changed dramatically.
Nevertheless the atmosphere at St. Carthage was unquestionably that of a Catholic school. The teachers allowed the Catholic Faith to touch and be reflected in each subject: history, geography, language arts, spelling and, of course, the daily opening class of religion. We prayed before classes began and before we recessed for lunch. We had weekly school Mass.
The environment exuded the pride and joy the teachers had in the Catholic Faith. And one of the lay teachers was not a Catholic herself! Such an environment had a profound impact on me as a young sixth-grade student. I desperately wanted to join this Faith that was such a source of delight and satisfaction in the lives of the priests, sisters and most of the other students. No one pressured me to become a Catholic—and, in fact, many non-Catholic students never did join the Church. But I was mesmerized by all that I was learning about Catholicism.
Catholic schools must be places where the Catholic Faith is unmistakably taught, but equally important they should be places where the witness of and enthusiasm for the faith causes people to become fascinated with, inspired by, attracted to and enthralled by Catholicism—Catholics and non-Catholics alike!
The 24 people who were honored at the banquet last Saturday represented countless others who have served our children in these schools. They have devoted themselves to working with parents in the formation of the students entrusted to their care. We thank them from the heart for their dedication to our children and for their commitment to making our Catholic schools as successful as they are.
May our Catholic schools continue to provide the same type of atmosphere of faith, excellence and joy that caused a certain young man to seek out the baptismal font … and eventually the Priesthood of Jesus Christ.