By Michael Rossmann, S.J.
I live in Chicago and love learning about the city’s rich history and distinctive neighborhoods — many of which were shaped by Catholic immigrants and their bustling parishes and schools.
I worked at one parish this summer and was amazed to see historical statistics indicating how many more children attended the parish school in previous decades with earlier waves of Catholic immigrants.
This experience and several conversations about the many Catholic schools that have closed over the years led me to wonder: If many immigrant Catholics moved from the city of Chicago to the suburbs, did new schools open to accommodate the shifting and growing Catholic population?
Of course, some new schools did open and some older institutions are thriving, though more than 45 percent of U.S. Catholic schools have closed since the mid-1960s, during the same period in which the Catholic population has increased significantly. It was encouraging to read in the Messenger that our diocese’s Catholic school enrollment is up from last year, though fewer than 15 percent of secondary-school-age U.S. Catholic teens attend a Catholic school.
In addition to having far fewer students, Catholic schools have changed tremendously. Previously, they could rely upon an army of religious Sisters and priests to staff them; it is now common to have Catholic schools without any priests or Sisters on staff, as was my experience at Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City when I was in high school. Additionally, it cannot be assumed that someone graduating from a Catholic high school today is well-versed in the Catholic faith. I wonder if we have completely come to terms with the significant implications.
One of the most thought-provoking and challenging books I have read in recent months is “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers” by sociologist Christian Smith. While highlighting how some Catholic teenagers are greatly informed of and engaged in their faith — energetic teens at World Youth Day and the National Catholic Youth Conference illustrate this well — the majority is largely religiously indifferent, lacks much knowledge of the faith, and is not seriously engaged in the Church.
Smith notes that the greatest factor in a teen’s religiosity is his or her parents’ own religious belief and practice, though he also highlights a lower level of Catholic institutional commitment to youth ministry, as compared to Protestants, for example. That is likely related to our greater traditional reliance on Catholic schools and CCD programs to pass along the faith to youth.
Smith concludes his chapter on Catholic teens by arguing that the institutional system we have relied on to provide distinctive Catholic education, socialization and pastoral ministry for teens has become severely weakened and that not enough has been done in response. How, then, are we adapting?
First, we must recognize there still is tremendous potential for reaching Catholic youth. The development of programs like Notre Dame Vision, which now helps 1,300 high school students look at God’s call in their lives each summer, is very encouraging. And Catholic schools still play a critical and effective role for passing on the faith to many.
But it will require the work and generous support of the entire faith community for Catholic schools to find a sustainable financial model. Schools themselves, while typically relying on committed lay people, can do much to promote the faith formation of their own teachers, who can then model this to their students.
Smith’s research also indicates that parents cannot merely rely on schools to pass on the faith; parents play a tremendous role in modeling this for their children. Much can also be done to promote events such as the Teens Encounter Christ (TEC) retreat, which takes place in our diocese but which at times has been canceled because of a lack of interest. Finally, what this research indicates to me is that we cannot simply rely on old models; we must look at ways — either through schools or parishes or outside of them — whereby we can better connect with youth, the future of our Church.