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Why non-Catholics select Catholic schools

First slide

When Baptists Felicia and Ethan Carr began searching for a high school for their eldest son, they had a clear vision of what they wanted: a top-notch college preparatory program with stellar academics. But the Carrs 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 took them from private schools to faith-based institutions and, finally, to a Catholic school. Their son Christopher is now a junior at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, and his younger brother, Nicholas, is a freshman.

Catholic high schools long have developed the minds and nurtured the spirits of Catholic teenagers. Yet in classrooms, pews and bleachers, a number of non-Catholics, like the Carrs, join their Catholic peers. Nationally, one-fifth of Catholic secondary school students are not Catholic, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. In the four Arlington diocesan high schools, non-Catholics account for, on average, 13 percent of the student body. Seton in Manassas, a junior and senior high school affiliated with the diocese, has a handful of non-Catholic students.

What leads families of other faiths, or no faith, to bypass a secular private high school or a free public school in favor of a Catholic one? Diocesan high school tuition is an average of nearly $4,000 more for non-Catholic students, and most offer no sibling discounts.

For many parents, the answer lies in concern for the inner life of students - their focus on the heart - at Catholic schools.

Beyond the three R's

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 Vatican II'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 O'Connell Head of School Joseph Vorbach. "Parents know that fundamentally this is a program grounded in a value system, and they find that very appealing. 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."

But most non-Catholic students are Christian, "and many of these parents look at us as part of their faith formation for children - the fact that we can teach ethics in the classroom and can use the term 'God,'" said Colwell.

That was true for the Protestant Price family. Sam is a junior and his sister, Rachel, is a sophomore at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria.

"I wanted the kids to receive a solid education and to avoid the pitfalls of public school," said their mother, Krista Price. The family 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 said.

Mutually deepened faith

As Orthodox Christians, Maria and Ruairi Murray decided to send their son Patrick to Seton 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.

"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."

The differences can also enrich a family's own Christian beliefs.

"The Catholic faith element has been a positive influence for our whole family," said Krista. Questions sparked by religion-class topics often "motivate us to go back and research what we believe," she said. "As a family we've had some great discussions. And it's helped us be less judgmental in how people go about worshipping God."

Sam, who's 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.

Baptist Myles Sherman, a sophomore at Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Dumfries, believes the effects of his high school experience will ripple outward beyond the classroom.

"I've gotten to see the world in respect to God and how I can use what I've learned here to influence what I do outside of here," he said. "(I've learned) how to deal with people who have different views, to help talk to non-Christians - not just by telling them they should read the Bible, but by showing them through reason why we should worship God."

There are some challenges for non-Catholics, though.

"It was a little awkward at times for (Sam), like when Catholic students went to confession or he went to Mass, because he'd never experienced anything like that," said Krista.

But students and parents are quick to say they've felt welcomed and that students and faculty are eager to offer practical guidance, such as when to stand and when to sit during Mass.

At every Catholic high school in the diocese, all students are required to take the same religion courses and participate in faith-based activities, such as schoolwide Masses and prayers. Of course, they 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.

She said a Jewish student helped classmates better understand The Chosen, a novel about two Jewish friends, by explaining Jewish beliefs and traditions.

Father Edward J. Bresnahan, Ireton chaplain, 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.

"And a strong Christian witness from a Protestant can also inspire Catholics to be better Catholics," said Father Gregory S. Thompson, chaplain at O'Connell.

The Gospel lived

The majority of students in Catholic schools share the same faith, but non-Catholics are just as treasured. "While we must be unapologetically Catholic, Catholic schools are not simply here for Catholics; we are here for everyone," said Father Thompson.

"Our basic premise is that all are welcome," said Sister of St. Joseph Karl Ann Homberg, assistant superintendent. 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."

Non-Catholics at Catholic high schools

Diocesan schools

Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria: 15 percent

Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington: 18 percent

Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax: 13 percent

Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Dumfries: 7 percent

Affiliated with the diocese

Seton School in Manassas: 1 percent

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015