ARLINGTON, Va. (CNS) — When Felicia and Ethan Carr began searching for a high school for their eldest son, they wanted a school with a top-notch college preparatory program.
But the Carrs, who are Baptist, sought something else as well.
“A lot of schools focus on the brain; we wanted a school that also focused on the heart,” said Felicia.
The search eventually led them to Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia, where their son Christopher is a junior and his brother, Nicholas, is a freshman.
The Carrs are not alone. Nationally, one-fifth of Catholic secondary school students are not Catholic, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
Families from different faiths choose Catholic schools for reasons “beyond class size and beyond the academics,” said Virginia Colwell, principal of Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax. “They are looking for something more, for a school that has their moral values and their beliefs. They want their children to be exposed to values in the classroom every day, not just at home.”
According to the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education, the proper function of Catholic schools “is to create for the school community a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity.”
It is this Gospel spirit that cultivates the value-focused environment that appeals to non-Catholic parents, said Joseph Vorbach, who is head of school at Bishop O’Connell.
“Parents know that fundamentally this is a program grounded in a value system, and they find that very appealing,” he told the Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocesan newspaper. “It has to do with our mission that education is rooted in the life of Christ and focused on the whole person. Even if they are not Christian, they find that attractive.”
Krista Price, mother of Sam and Rachel Price, who attend Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, said her family is Protestant but she “wanted the kids to receive a solid education and to avoid the pitfalls of public school.” The family was home-schooled through eighth grade, so she felt a smaller school would ease the transition. Most importantly, though, “we wanted a Christ-centered school,” she added.
“The Catholic faith element has been a positive influence for our whole family,” Krista pointed out, noting that questions raised in religion class topics often “motivate us to go back and research what we believe.”
Sam, who has considered becoming a minister, agrees with his mom and said he’s been inspired by his Catholic classmates.
“Some (fellow students) want to go into ministry, and whether it’s as a missionary or a priest or a nun, I’ve found that pretty cool that we are different denominations but all want to serve God,” he said.
As Orthodox Christians, Maria and Ruairi Murray decided to send their son Patrick to Seton in Manassas, a junior and senior high school affiliated with the Arlington Diocese, for a number of reasons, including the school’s academic rigor, its conservative feel and Christian environment.
“It was important to us for him to see … peers who are struggling to live the Christian life, that it’s not just an ideal but an everyday struggle, because it is for each of us,” said Maria.
However, the Murrays ensure their son understands the distinction between Catholicism and their own faith, but the differences also a family’s own Christian beliefs.
“As parents, we have great comfort in knowing that our son is in an educational environment that will reinforce much of what he learns … in the Eastern Church,” said Ruairi. “With that said, there are some key differences. Being cognizant of these differences and why they exist is something that we have and will continue to make Patrick aware of.”
Myles Sherman, who is Baptist, and a sophomore at St. John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Dumfries, believes the effects of his high school experience will have impacts beyond the classroom.
For starters, he said he has learned to “deal with people who have different views.”
There are some challenges for non-Catholics, though.
Krista Price said it was “a little awkward at times” for her son when Catholic students went to confession or the students went to Mass.
But students and parents are quick to say they’ve felt welcomed.
At Catholic high schools in the Arlington Diocese, students are required to take religion courses and participate in faith-based activities, such as schoolwide Masses and prayers. Of course, non-Catholic students don’t partake in the Eucharist or confession, but in every other way “they are part of the spiritual life of the school,” said Vorbach.
The students also enhance their Catholic peers’ academic and spiritual formation, bringing to the classroom their diverse backgrounds and spiritual practices, said Colwell.
Father Edward J. Bresnahan, chaplain at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, said non-Catholics can “elevate the dialogue in religion classes” because they have less knowledge of Catholicism than cradle Catholics and often ask more questions.
“Our basic premise is that all are welcome,” said Sister Karl Ann Homberg, a Sister of St. Joseph assistant superintendent of Arlington Catholic Schools.
It is not the schools’ mission to convert non-Catholics, but rather to evangelize in the sense of animating the Gospel through words and actions. Some students may be drawn to the Catholic Church, she said, but for others it is an opportunity to awaken and deepen their own beliefs.
“When students are exposed to good role models, to faculty and students who are actively living the faith, their own faith and beliefs can be revitalized,” she added.
Scott is a reporter for the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.