My parents gave me the gift of 16 years of Catholic education and I’m not sure I ever thanked them for it. From first grade on, I went to school in places where we prayed daily, worshiped together at Mass, and learned about our faith just as surely as we learned our math facts and our parts of speech. While my parents knew I was getting a good education and they were happy with my faith formation, they couldn’t know exactly how my Catholic education was forming me. They couldn’t know, in part, because I didn’t know myself. Not at the time. I never came home from school and said, “Mom, I learned something today that will affect my faith development for the rest of my life.” Instead, I drank in my Catholic education like it was water, breathed it like it was air — and took it for granted just as surely as I take water and air for granted. So today, on the eve of Catholic School’s Week, I have decided it is time I let my parents know just what it was they gave me, and thank them for it.
Dear Mom and Dad,
The strangest thing about the gift of a Catholic education is I didn’t realize it was a gift at the time. Even as a kid, I usually recognized gifts. I remember exclaiming over the Weebles Tree House you gave me for my sixth birthday, and gasping over the Barbie camper I received on my ninth. I remember hugging you for the pink running suit (so 80’s) that I ran in all through high school. But I know I never thanked you properly for the sixteen-years-long, thousands-of-dollars-later, skip-that-vacation and wait-on-the-new-furniture gift of a Catholic education.
I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but now, with two kids in Catholic school, and another toddling toward it at breakneck speed, I understand. And so I will thank you for the pieces of my education you could not have known about.
Thank you for fourth grade at Holy Family with Mrs. Foti. I still remember our class’ role planning the Mass on the last day of school. The Catholic Church may have higher holy days than the last Mass before summer vacation, but as a nine-year-old, I couldn’t think of anything bigger than sending everyone into the summer with a holy bang. Fourth grade was 1978, and guitar Masses were all the rage. We wrote the petitions and chose songs based on the readings. We belted out, “They’ll Know We are Christians by our Love,” keeping beat on our tambourines. I learned that planning a liturgy was not a job reserved for priests or mysterious adult leaders. A fourth grader could do it. A girl could do it. At nine, I learned what “we are the church” really means.
Thank you for seventh and eighth grade with Mrs. Gallagher. I definitely didn’t tell you what I learned from Mrs. Gallagher, because she taught a human sexuality unit as part of religion class. She would allow us to write our questions on little slips of paper and she’d answer them. Mrs. Gallagher blended frank answers with Church teaching; she provided me with a lens through which I could see a sacredness to sexuality that I may have missed otherwise. Those religion classes, coupled with a marriage and family class I had in high school, shaped decisions I made in dating.
Throughout high school, I doubt if I ever mentioned Fr. Jerry. Fr. Jerry was not a headline teacher. He was thin, quiet and seemed a little shy. But then again, compared to a shrieking adolescent girl, who doesn’t seem shy? Fr. Jerry taught Justice and Peace at Dominican. He pushed us beyond the boundaries of the upper-middle class North Shore. He made us look at poverty and oppression and ask the question, “Why?” And ask it again. Fr. Jerry started me thinking about injustice, both in the U.S. and across our borders. I would not have read the U.S. Bishops 1986 Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching if it weren’t for Fr. Jerry. It was a letter that told me that it was okay to rock the boat — that in fact, rocking the boat was part of our calling as Catholics.
And then there’s your biggest ticket item. Marquette University. You gave me the choice between Catholic and public; I chose Catholic and never even saw you wince. My experience of Marquette was 10 p.m. Masses at Joan of Arc Chapel, retreats and campus ministry. Marquette was a week doing service work with Brother Booker Ashe in Milwaukee’s inner city and a week in Appalachia, helping repair run-down houses. Marquette built on what Mrs. Foti, Mrs. Gallagher and Fr. Jerry started. Marquette handed me the Catholic baton, told me it was my Church and to take off toward adulthood running hard and strong, with that baton always in hand.
I’m sorry I didn’t thank you at the time. I was too busy relating stories of sixth grade cliques and explaining exactly why I didn’t like algebra. I remember complaining to you about various teachers throughout the years and about Marquette University’s refusal to divest from South Africa. These Catholic schools were far from perfect, and I made sure you knew exactly why.
But perfect or not, in most ways, Holy Family, Dominican and Marquette University reinforced what you taught at home. By the time I graduated, prayer and faith were not abstract concepts but living and real parts of my life. Working for justice was not someone else’s responsibility; it was mine. Catholic schools gave me an ownership of my Catholic faith that I’m not sure I could have developed in any other way.
The Weebles Tree House, the Barbie camper and the pink running suit are all fond memories now. I really can’t say what became of any of them. But I know what became of the Catholic education. Somehow, it became me.
Love, your daughter,