‘Teacher, what should we do?’
The American Catholic educational system’s legacy of service to underrepresented minority communities continues to thrive
As both an African-American Catholic and a high school theology teacher, I have been troubled at how, in recent months, the United States has experienced unfortunate circumstances involving racial discord. This was typified by the deadly violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Va., in August.
It is clear that American society has wounds that are in need of the healing that the Divine Physician (Luke 5:31) can readily provide. The Catholic Church globally, as well as the Church in the United States locally (including American Catholic educational institutions), can raise a prominent voice in facilitating harmony between those of different ethnic backgrounds.
How fortunate that The Cardinal Newman Society has the opportunity to underscore this legacy, including with the personal testimony of Joseph Pearce, who has chronicled his first-hand experience transitioning into a purveyor of societal harmony and converting to Catholicism, as he recently discussed in the National Catholic Register.
After all, Catholic schools are in a unique position to continue fostering this cultural dialogue, in the ultimate interests of peace, reconciliation, and the glorification of the kingdom of God. Therein lies the vital role of Catholic schools in this charitable endeavor of evangelization that includes the Christian service of humanity.
America’s Catholic educational system has a fascinating and perhaps even unprecedented history in terms of what it has accomplished over the course of a couple centuries, its enduring impact reflecting the Lord’s call to “go and bear fruit that will remain” (John 15:16).
Yet our legacy of Catholic education has its beginnings on the other side of the Atlantic in the unique role that the Catholic Church has played in forming the university system. A review of the setting of the Middle Ages is worthwhile, given that it is out of these actually not-so-“Dark Ages” that the Catholic Church in Europe verily kept the intellectual flame of ancient knowledge lit—from the time of Rome’s barbarian invasions in the mid-fifth century—with the persistent aid of an expansive array of monastic enterprises.
The onset of the knowledge-laden university system was particularly typical of the academically fruitful period of the late 11th century through the early 13th century, when the Catholic Church in Europe (its principle geographical hub at the time) produced such continuously operating institutions as the University of Paris in France, the University of Bologna in Italy, the University of Salamanca in Spain, and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge in England. Although, over the course of centuries, the theological orientations of some of these (and other) originally Catholic universities have shifted, their Catholic origin is readily evident.
Some of the more prominent figures at the onset of U.S.-based Catholic education include saints who selflessly served others in their communities, no matter their ethnicity, cultural setting, national origin, or other factors. This includes service to minority populations that did not necessarily have ready access to higher educational opportunities. Philadelphia-born St. Katharine Drexel was monumental in terms of her legendary commitment to Catholic education, especially including her dedication to serving poor blacks and Native Americans throughout the United States. Her contributions have likewise been chronicled by the National Black Catholic Congress, which highlighted how she founded Xavier University of Louisiana, the only historically black Catholic university in the United States.
Other prominent American saints, such as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. John Neumann, were likewise committed to providing access to minority students at a time when it was otherwise inaccessible to them, due to various societal hindrances and legislative setbacks.
There have been numerous other instances in which Catholic schools have aided minority communities, especially over the course of the last hundred years. In 1924, students from the University of Notre Dame actively opposed the intimidation of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1947, Notre Dame celebrated its first black graduates, and in recent years, it has seen an increase in black freshmen (in fact, one of the best increases in the nation). Other Catholic universities have successfully served minority communities via similar initiatives.
Along with universities, Catholic high schools have likewise led minority students to achievement. In 2015, the Verbum Dei School in Watts, Calif., made national news when its all-male student body, many of whom are from racial minorities, achieved 100 percent college acceptance. Other institutions, such as the Cristo Rey schools, have become similarly well-known for effectively leading their students, often from minority communities, to academic success.
This article isn’t an attempt to provide an in-depth overview of how Catholic schools in the United States have reliably served student populations that include racial minorities. Anyone looking to investigate this topic more extensively will find resources in plentiful supply. Instead, the point worth emphasizing is that American Catholic schools have always been committed to assisting those who have not traditionally had access to a worthy education.
At the same time, we must recall that academic success would be futile if it were not inculcated with the very reason that Catholic education is in place to begin with: to glorify God by spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ, keeping in mind the question posed so appropriately to Jesus: “Teacher, what should we do?” (Luke 3:12).
As we continue to ask the Lord this question, it is our prayerful hope that those communities—of any background or situation—whom Catholic education has served in Christian capacities likewise serve others in turn, allowing Catholic education’s legacy, both in the United States and abroad, to continue to flourish for the good of the kingdom of God.
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