Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. John Neumann. Neumann is considered a pivotal figure in the spread of Catholic education in the United States, as he was what first to organize a diocesan Catholic school system and, as bishop, he increased the number of Catholic schools in his diocese to 100 (from 2).
I attended Catholic grade school and high school in Brooklyn, New York. For all of the jokes and stories we told (and continue to tell) about the nuns – the one we called Bulldog, the one in whose classroom we always changed the clock, the one old enough to have been old when she taught my mother the same subject she taught me – I am incredibly grateful for the education I received in Catholic school. Doubtless the classroom set-up (fifty desks arranged in rows in each room) would be frowned upon today. Without question the level (and form) of discipline would not be tolerated. Certainly in the upper grades we lacked anywhere near the number of elective courses my daughter can choose from in her public high school here in Minnesota. To be sure I shake my head today at some of the practices promoted in my Catholic school days (pooling our pennies to save “pagan” babies, who we identified by name on little cut out figures taped on the side walls of the classroom, ranks high on the list).
But we learned. We recieved a good education in the “secular” subjects we would have been taught in any other school. And we received a good grounding in our faith, and regular religious devotions were part of school life. I’m not suggesting there weren’t flaws, particularly in high school religion, which by senior year was largely “marriage prep” and which was woefully inadequate to deal with the questions some of us had. But, I benefitted tremendously from the education and the faith community.
And so today I’ll say a prayer of thanksgiving of the work for St. John Neumann and for the work of those who continue his work in fostering Catholic school education, in this country and elsewhere in the world.