By Fr. Kevin Finnegan, Pastor at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church, Edina
Catholic schools proudly proclaim a more expansive mission to educate students beyond just classroom academics: to form the whole child. But what does that really mean? Is it extracurriculars so that a student is a talented athlete or musician? Is it teaching students to be globally minded citizens? These are all good things, but Catholic schools are referring to something on a much deeper and more fundamental level; that is, a virtuous character.
A person’s fundamental character influences everything he or she does, from big decisions about career choice to minor decisions about whether to give a dollar and a kind word to the homeless person on the sidewalk. But character is not randomly assigned. It is something that is built and formed every day as we live our lives and make decisions. If you look closely enough, you can probably see the difference between people of virtuous character and people of amoral character.
When Catholic schools talk about forming the whole child, they are talking about fostering virtuous character in their students. Catholic schools partner with families to nurture ongoing moral development and the value of serving others. They do this explicitly through direct classroom teaching, service projects and other focused projects throughout the year.
• One local school has a virtue of the month, wherein the entire student body studies and consciously lives that virtue over the course of a month.
• Many schools hold monthly service projects where they visit the elderly, serve food at homeless shelters, assist at the local St. Vincent de Paul Center or simply rake the lawns of community members.
• In another Catholic school, fifth graders take turn participating in a monthly nursing home Mass. They meet the residents, pray with them, help them get back to their rooms. But most importantly, our students realize that they can love … even more.
Catholic schools also build virtuous character implicitly through the classroom and school environment. Because students are taught to love and respect one another, you will often witness students helping peers, welcoming new students and countering the temptation to bully or tease. Because students are taught that what you do matters, because God sees everything even when no one else does, you will often find students forgoing the anonymity of cyber or social media bullying and choosing kindness instead.
Catholic schools bless more than just their students. Every year through our Catholic schools, more and more parents begin to discover and express their faith. A couple of dads last year became inspired through their children making their first holy communion. So — as they say — “we got off my duffs, learned about being Catholic through the RCIA and were received into the Church last Easter.” This fall they shared at their school’s annual P.I.E. night (Parent Information Evening — and yes pie is served!) about their journey joining the faith. This year, even more parents have inquired about the faith. And with faith deepened, character grows.
Catholic schools remain extraordinary communities. Built on virtuous character, they have a distinctive place when it comes to schools. The faculty and staff consciously teach about and live lives of character, creating a school atmosphere where it flourishes. We are blessed to have Catholic schools forming our next generation of character-driven leaders.