Preliminary Note: This is not a scholarly argument but rather a quick, unscientific reflection based upon firsthand observation.
My wife and I send our kids to a Catholic school. The primary reason for this is because we think the educational opportunities happen to be stronger at this school than at other schools available to us in our immediate area. Secondarily, we appreciate the general warmth and kindness of the school community. Neither of these reasons is directly related to a Catholic identity. If we happened to live where I grew up, our kids would go to one of the public schools because what happens to be true of our Catholic school here was true of the public school I attended there.
Appropriately for Halloween, I remember being haunted. In this case what haunted me once was what a slightly older school parent said to me a couple years back. With her son set to graduate from the eighth grade and move on from our grade school to high school, I asked her what she thought about his Catholic education to date. She said that he and all of his friends were, generally, “really nice kids” who “received a really good education” and were prepared to do well in high school. The hint of disappointment I thought I heard in what otherwise seemed like a positive assessment was confirmed when she added, “and I just don’t think that’s enough.”
I have a lot of questions regarding how well (or not) Catholic schools actually form young people in the Catholic faith, or even teach the Catholic faith in a robust and substantive (though of course age-appropriate) way. I know many of the schools are successful in teaching other things very well and I believe that, by and large, they are positive communities, with many of them offering quality educations in places where alternatives are bleak. At the same time, I find myself more than hesitant to declare that they are altogether effective in promoting lasting faith formation and attuning young people to the particularities of the Catholic faith. At worst, I fear that if just enough is given in terms of religious education and formation in faith, then students will be inhibited from growing further in the future and/or will settle upon a rather deficient understanding of Catholic belief and the quality of faith. My experience of Catholic education from the perspective of a parent (as well as from a University setting where I meet many young people who are products of Catholic education), is that, by and large, it really isn’t all that effective in instilling a love for the Church or of forming a religious imagination. I don’t mean to suggest that those two things should replace a fine education and a warm environment, but I do mean to suggest that the former are distinctively Catholic markers whereas the latter are not.
Halloween has become for me an annual occasion of my discontent. When
I helped out with my son’s kindergarten class several years ago, I
found myself deeply disappointed at the beginning of October when I discovered that the expectations for the end of the month festivities all had to do with typical Halloween stuff. I expected something else. There seemed to be nothing at all happening in regards to All Saints’ Day. Maybe it was part of the class’s lesson in religion, but the celebration itself didn’t have the saints in view, neither the canonized ones nor the anonymous ones. It was as if Halloween was worth celebrating for all its fun and treats, but the saints weren’t. At least that was the implicit message in what was being offered, even if no one at the school intentionally made that choice. And that’s just it: no one was intentionally making a choice to be Catholic, to create a distinctively Catholic culture, to educate in Catholic things and to form Catholic imaginations, and so the default was to do pretty much the same thing as everyone else, while saying please and thank you in the process.
This memory resurfaced about a week ago when I learned from a friend that her daughter’s Catholic school (in the same city as our own) was intentionally making a change in the way they approached this “holiday”. Here is an excerpt from the note sent to room-parents:
Monsignor would really like us to shift our emphasis away from ghosts, witches and goblins to the real origin of All Hallow’s Eve—the vigil (preparation) day for All Saints’ Day. So we are encouraged to downplay the secular emphasis on Halloween and build up the Catholic feast of all the holy men and women who have gone before us in faith, hope, and love.
In effect, Halloween was being removed so that the light of the saints could shine through. This school was making the choice to let the kids see that and not just what they would already have seen otherwise.
A strange thing happens with Halloween. It is not so much that a religious holiday gets morphed into a secular celebration (like Christmas) but rather that a secular celebration eclipses a religious holiday and makes it invisible (more like what the “holiday shopping season” does to Advent). Just like everyone else, Catholic school children are given a festive opportunity to pretend being something they’re not rather than practicing and celebrating what they are and are called to become: holy (young) men and women.
Halloween teaches kids to look forward to and be excited about dress-up and candy. This isn’t inherently harmful except that it comes at the expense of what might otherwise incite their imaginations and stoke their excitement, if we would only teach them accordingly. Isn’t there a grand opportunity here for Catholic schools to teach our kids how to be excited about and dream about the possibilities for holiness in the company of both the great and unknown saints who have lived and died in faith?
In short, I think that for this particular holiday—the Solemnity of All Saints—we would be wise to ask ourselves how well we are working through our Catholic schools make sure that the following invitation falls upon receptive hearts and well-formed imaginations:
Let us all rejoice in the Lord, as we celebrate the feast day in honor of all the Saints, at whose festival the Angels rejoice and praise the Son of God. (Entrance Antiphon, Solemnity of All Saints)