The following blog was contributed by Clare Kilbane, Ph.D., a faculty member, senior learning designer, and Catholic school liaison at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. Follow her on Twitter @ClareRKilbane. This article was originally published on the McGrath Institute blog and is being offered here with permission from the publisher.
A crisis has a strange way of clarifying things. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped me to recognize the important contributions Catholic schools are uniquely positioned to make. As I’ve worked to support Catholic school leaders in “pivoting” to distance education, I’ve become keenly aware of the many ways Catholic schools help the families they serve.
Providing connections to peers in a faith-based community
Although social distancing is helpful for our physical health, social isolation is detrimental to our mental health. It makes people more prone to depression, anxiety, despair. The effects of social distancing required during a quarantine are especially difficult for teens who derive their social and emotional development through interactions with peers. Through online learning experiences, a Catholic school can allow young people of all ages to continue to benefit from healthy formal and informal interactions with their peers. During the pandemic, special care can be taken to provide students the opportunity to grieve together about the loss of canceled social activities, truncated athletic seasons, postponed sacramental celebrations, and alterations to other important events. Students will also benefit from opportunities to wrestle productively with the suffering they see in the world around them under the guidance of a caring teacher who can guide them as they engage the “big questions” from a Christian worldview (e.g., problem of suffering, existence of God, meaning of life, etc.). Supporting the work of students’ parents, a Catholic school teacher can offer additional affirmation that God will not abandon his people, that good can emerge from bad events. Teachers can team up with parents to help students develop resilience, lean on prayer, and practice hope.
Bringing Christ’s love to the community
Because teachers have a personal, direct, and regular connection to students and families, they are often the first to know and be able to respond when they are struggling. In these uncertain times, when many people are experiencing anxiety, grief, illness, and hardship, those working in Catholic schools can share Christ’s love in special ways and mobilize others to do the same, addressing the spiritual needs of families and providing them comfort when they are grieving the loss of loved ones, jobs, and security. Teachers can ensure families have the resources many need for distance learning, and administrators can arrange assistance in paying tuition. Likewise, counselors and other staff can connect school families to community resources that address food insecurity, unemployment, and mental-health. This witness of Christ’s love, evident in the actions of school staff, can inspire similar actions among the families as well. Parents can be encouraged to help one another manage the difficulties of distance learning as they adjust to the stress of working from home and parenting under quarantine. Students can be encouraged to bring Christ’s love to the community as well, perhaps engaging in service learning by reaching out to senior citizens who are isolated through phone calls or other means.
Supporting the Domestic Church
In a time when public celebrations of the Mass have been suspended in many places, Catholic schools can offer important support for the celebration of faith, prayer, and worship in the family or the “Domestic Church.” Through the leadership of campus ministers, catechists, theology teachers, or others, the school can supply parents and guardians with specific ways to focus on faith, liturgy, and prayer in the home. For example, the school could provide a resource that explains how to participate in an online Mass prayerfully, along with a list and links to available online Masses. The school might also encourage a common time for daily Mass or praying the Rosary. Educational materials that help a parent provide catechetical instruction can also be reinforcing. In this way, the school can honor the parents in their role as “first teacher” and build up the family and domestic Church. Not only will this augment the work of the school when the current crisis has passed, but it will also allow both the faith of the family and their bonds with one another to be strengthened so they emerge from the crisis stronger and more full of God’s love.