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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Begg

Countercultural Schools Can Save the American Catholic Church

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

The way forward for the American Catholic Church can be found in small, but vibrant, communities across the country where Catholic schools, having rediscovered the Church's education tradition, are cultivating a strong Catholic counterculture in partnership with families and parishes. This is possible everywhere. Our schools can lead the way.

Can Catholicism be passed on without Catholic culture? This is the question David B. Bonagura asked recently in an insightful article in Catholic World Report. Noting that today’s young Catholic parents are not only uncatechized, but also unchurched and unfamiliar with traditional Catholic culture, he proposes as a way forward a “triangular-shaped garden” where families, parishes, and Catholic schools sow the seeds of faith by cultivating a Catholic counterculture.

Kudos to Bonagura for recognizing Catholic schools as an important creator and protector of Catholic culture.

Regarding the essential partnership between Catholic parishes and schools, he offers:

The parish and the school have to urge parents and children to tend to their faith development at home, and… provide, in absence of a Catholic neighborhood, an understanding of how to live the Catholic faith in daily life. Parents have to be aware that they and their children are different from their peers for choosing a distinctly Catholic life, and they have to fortify themselves against peer pressure to conform.

The Catholic garden that Bonagura envisions already exists in small, but vibrant, communities across the country where parishes and schools are working together to rebuild what has been lost in the life of the American Catholic Church.

Consider the Catholic community in Hyattsville, Maryland, which is perhaps the best-known of these communities. Until recently, most Catholics in Hyattsville were like most Catholics throughout the country.

That began to change in 2010 when the archdiocese of Washington announced that it was considering closing St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville due to low enrollment. In humility, St. Jerome’s pastor, Fr. James M. Stack, and principal, Mary Pat Donoghue, set out to understand why their school was failing and what needed to be done to save it.

The amazing story of how they breathed life back into their school by reclaiming the Church’s education tradition is often told to offer an actionable path forward for struggling and failing schools. And appropriately so.

But what has happened—and is still happening—in Hyattsville has greater significance for the American Catholic Church. Because when St. Jerome Academy became more Catholic, the Catholic community in Hyattsville became more Catholic and continues to become more Catholic all the time.

Today, Catholic families from all over relocate to Hyattsville so they can tap into the vibrant Catholic community there, where Catholics live, work, raise families, worship, and support each other, faithfully and joyfully, in a distinctly Catholic way.

This is possible everywhere.

Faithfully Catholic families exist in all or most dioceses. These are families that have their eyes wide open about the dangers of the world, and they know that many institutions with Catholic names (for example, most Catholic colleges and universities and many Catholic high schools and elementary schools) have priorities that conflict with their highest priority: to raise their children to know, love, and serve Christ and spend eternity with Him in Heaven.

The Catholic Church teaches that the family is the domestic church, “where God’s children learn to pray ‘as the Church’ and to persevere in prayer.” (CCC 2685) Praying daily, keeping Sundays centered on the Eucharist, and observing “the cycle of the liturgical year and its great feasts” are a part of the “basic rhythms of the Christian’s life of prayer.” (CCC 2698)

As Bonagura observes, in generations past, there was a “Catholic way of living in the world” that was distinct. Most Catholics have no memory of this “Catholic way,” but they are hungry for it, as evidenced by the growing popularity of liturgical living resources offered by Catholics moms, authors, and businesses who are helping Catholic families build a Catholic culture in their homes. (See Catholic All Year, Catholic Icing, Theology of Home, and Holy Heroes, just to name a few.)

One of the most important parts of the St. Jerome Academy story is this: in 2010 and earlier, many of the Catholic families who could have done the most to strengthen the school’s Catholic culture were not involved with the school at all because it was not fully anchored in the Church’s intellectual tradition.

Because of the school’s enrollment decline and financial crisis, the Archdiocese of Washington required Fr. Stack and Donoghue to lead a consultation on the future of the school. They hosted an event which drew a sizable number of parishioners and led to fruitful discussions with homeschooling parents, including Michael Hanby, an associate professor of religion and philosophy of science at the John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America, and Chris Currie, who led a Catholic homeschool co-op and now serves as director of institutional Advancement for St. Jerome Academy. These parents strongly affirmed their desire for the school to remain open but conveyed that their children had access to richer content at home: their children studied works of classic literature, history unfiltered by secular biases, sacred art and music, Latin, theology, philosophy, science, and mathematics in an environment immersed in the Catholic faith.

In response, Fr. Stack and Donoghue assembled a team of home educators, philosophers, and theologians to help them rebuild their school to make it more Catholic. Rather than merely suggesting that religious elements be added to the school day, the team, led by Hanby, created a 120-page document, The Educational Plan for St. Jerome Academy, that provided the outline for a K-8 curriculum, as well as book lists and pedagogy guidelines. It laid out what would be taught, and how it would be taught, such that all aspects of the culture and curriculum would be ordered to the reality of human nature and child development and would reflect the cohesiveness and beauty of a Catholic worldview.

When St. Jerome Academy reopened as a Catholic school rooted in the Church’s longstanding, but largely abandoned, education tradition, it laid the groundwork for the revival of Hyattsville’s Catholic community.

Today, the school continues to thrive, becoming stronger and more countercultural every year under the leadership of Danny Flynn, who has served as principal since 2016. This is far from inevitable. Schools are uniquely vulnerable to mission drift because the make-up of the community changes every year, when graduating families (and their attitudes, experiences, and expectations) are replaced by younger students and their families (and their attitudes, experiences, and expectations).

In every school, it is the teachers who are the most important conveyers and protectors of its mission.

Accordingly, St. Jerome Academy is careful to hire and provide continual training to faithfully Catholic teachers who are passionate about cultivating faith, virtue, and wonder in their students. The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, the leading teacher training organization for the renewal of Catholic education that now provides a teacher certification program that is an alternative to state licensure, has been a key partner in this effort.

As a result, St. Jerome Academy is much more than an academic institution for children. It is an educator of Catholic families, a partner of parents in the formation of their children, and the sharer and spreader of lost Catholic traditions. The school prioritizes the need to serve students with special learning needs, having established a resource program with three full-time special educators.

One of the ways the school educates families is by sending a monthly newsletter aimed at helping parents fulfill their vocation as parents by building a Catholic culture in their home. The newsletter is appropriately called the Domestic Church Bulletin. It shares devotions, prayers, stories about the saints, recipes, and other ideas to help families bring liturgical seasons and celebrations into their homes.

The school supports the education of families in other ways, including by providing a subscription to FORMED, which is a Catholic streaming service offering audio content, movies, e-books, and kids programming by the Augustine Institute. The school also encourages parents to participate in parish activities, which include an ENDOW group for women and THAT MAN IS YOU! for men.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the St. Jerome Academy story is what is happening in other communities because of it. In partnership with their parishes, hundreds of parochial schools have already brought the Church’s education tradition into their communities after consulting with St. Jerome’s leadership, resulting in more families rediscovering a Catholic way of living in the world.

More change is coming. Since 2018, Donoghue has been helping to guide the educational mission of the American Catholic Church through her service as Executive Director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Her work on the Committee on Education, which is chaired by Bishop Thomas Daly (Spokane), involves collaboration with bishops nationwide, including Bishop James Conley of Lincoln and Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver who have undertaken steps to restore a Catholic understanding of education to their schools’ curricula and pedagogy.

Today, more than 25% of the nation’s Catholic diocesan superintendents (45 leaders representing 45 dioceses) now comprise a group affiliated with the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. They are helping each other renew their diocesan schools by prioritizing authentic Catholic mission, curriculum, and pedagogy.

That’s a quarter of dioceses creating partnerships with families to strengthen the domestic church. There’s no better path to save the American Catholic Church.

Kimberly Begg is a Catholic wife and mother of five children who is trying to cooperate with God’s grace to guide her family to Heaven. An attorney with more than 20 years of experience strengthening Catholic and conservative causes, she serves as director of programs and general counsel for the Ortner Family Foundation and editor of Catholic School Playbook, a website that shares the best practices of successful Catholic schools. She is the author of Unbreakable: Saints Who Inspired Saints to Moral Courage (TAN Books).



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