Non-Catholic students find welcoming environment at Catholic schools

By Jennifer Burke
Catholic News Service

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Brooke Smith fell in love with Irondequoit’s Bishop Kearney High School even before she enrolled.

She looked into the school at the recommendation of her pastor at St. Luke Tabernacle Community Church in Rochester and knew it was the right place for her.

This fall, she will be a senior at the school — officially called Bishop Kearney High School: A Golisano Education Partner because of its recent partnership with business entrepreneur, B. Thomas Golisano.

Religion classes, liturgies and prayer are a regular part of life for Bishop Kearney students, but Brooke said she doesn’t feel awkward about being a non-Catholic in a Catholic school.

“Not at all, because not everyone there is Catholic,” she told the Catholic Courier, Rochester’s diocesan newspaper.

Nineteen percent of Bishop Kearney’s student population is Christian but not Catholic, and another 3 percent come from non-Christian faith backgrounds, according to Paul Cypher, the school’s vice president for operations.

Bishop Kearney’s percentage of non-Catholic students is not unusual. For example, 30 percent of students at Rochester’s Nazareth Academy are non-Catholic, according to Susan Hasler, director of enrollment management. These students are Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and students with no religious affiliations.

Thirty percent of the seventh-graders at Brighton’s Our Lady of Mercy High School are non-Catholic, as are 27 percent of the school’s ninth-graders, according to Vilma Goetting, principal. The non-Catholic students are Hindus, Muslims, Protestants and members of nondenominational churches.

Nationwide, non-Catholics accounted for 17.8 percent of all students enrolled in Catholic high schools, and 12.3 percent of all students enrolled in Catholic elementary and middle schools in the U.S. during the 2006-07 school year, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

In the Rochester Diocese, 80 percent to 90 percent of students enrolled in the six Rochester inner-city schools are non-Catholics, said Patricia Jones, assistant diocesan superintendent for those schools. But other schools also have substantial numbers of non-Catholic students.

Evelyn Kirst, director of the Catholic and private school leadership program at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, said the issue of educating non-Catholic students is one most Catholic schools have to address.

This summer, the Warner School’s annual summer institute on Catholic education specifically dealt with the issue of religious diversity in Catholic schools.

Non-Catholic enrollment in Catholic schools has been rising since the 1960s, perhaps because parents like the values taught in Catholic schools, appreciate the discipline enforced there and are looking for alternatives to the public school system, Kirst said.

One of the workshop speakers, Father William Graf, a Rochester diocesan priest who is assistant professor of religious studies at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, stressed that hospitality is one of the hallmarks of the Catholic tradition, so it should be a Catholic school’s mission to proclaim God’s love for all while extending hospitality toward all.

Another speaker, Deacon Thomas Driscoll, pastoral associate at Holy Family Catholic Community in Wayland, noted that being respectful of another’s faith tradition does not mean being ashamed of one’s own Catholic faith and traditions.

Rather, these should be actively celebrated, he noted. Educators working in religiously diverse Catholic schools might have to work a bit harder to find ways to do this, he noted, but it is possible.

One way is to study the Catholic faith and the other faiths represented in a class and find links or common ground between those faiths, and then teach about those links, Deacon Driscoll said.

All students at Nazareth Academy and Our Lady of Mercy High School participate in school prayers and Masses, Hasler and Goetting said.

If Nazareth students don’t actively participate in the prayers, they are expected to maintain a respectful silence, and students who don’t receive Communion may opt instead to receive a blessing from the priest, Hasler said.

Mercy’s non-Catholic students participate in Masses by singing, reading and doing as much as is comfortable for them during the school’s liturgical functions, Goetting said.

“At the same time they are encouraged to share their thoughts and religious customs, which helps to educate the other students, giving them a global vision of religions in the world,” she said.

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