I graduated from Mogadore High School in Mogadore, Ohio in 1996. Fast forward 25 years, and I am now a Sister of Mercy and teach at Mount Mercy Academy, a Catholic high school in Buffalo, New York.
I didn’t grow up going to Catholic schools, so I didn’t really understand the differences between a public school and a Catholic school. It seemed to me that a school was a school. That way of thinking changed when I started teaching in Catholic schools myself. I spent four years at an inner-city Catholic middle school, then moved to teaching high school. I have often seen advertisements for Catholic schools with the saying “The Catholic School Difference.” I didn’t understand this difference until I found myself privileged to teach in a Catholic school.
Tomorrow morning, I will walk into a homeroom of 11th grade girls, some who will be complaining about school. There will most likely be eye rolling and grumbling as they begin their morning. My junior class focuses on Catholic Social Teaching and the students study different problems in our world. We will continue to read and discuss the book Just Mercy, and we will begin to discuss the theme of systemic oppression among certain groups of people and the death penalty.
The biggest reason I love teaching at a Catholic school is that God, who is a very important part of my life as a sister, is integrated into so much of the day. We begin every class with prayer. I try to tie each lesson back to something from Catholic Social Teaching. I ask students where they can find God in every problem we study.
Honoring the life and dignity of each person is a fundamental principle of Catholic Social Teaching, and I often ask my students to give me one example of how they have treated someone with respect that day. I also remind them to look for God among the drama of their friendships and to remember to try really hard to treat everyone with the dignity they deserve.
I had a student say to me recently, “Sister, this life and dignity stuff makes a lot of sense.” When I asked her what she meant she said, “When I think about God loving us, then it makes sense that we should love others the same way.” This short conversation brought tears to my eyes when I reflected upon it later. These are the same students who greet me with eye rolling at the beginning of homeroom and complain about having to read a book or do a project. Regardless of the eye rolling and complaining, they are learning and growing in their faith. They are asking big questions and learning that there are no easy answers.
I didn’t learn about Catholic Social Teaching until I was involved with Campus Ministry in college. During my school days, I didn’t hear about God loving me and how we should love others the same way God does. The world is very different than it was 25 years ago when I graduated from high school. Now, more than ever, students need to hear about God, to wonder about how God is present in their everyday life. The discussions students and teachers can have when God is able to be front and center is a big part of that “Catholic School Difference.”