Immigrants are in the news these days. And as politicians, pundits, and journalists offer perspectives on how immigrants are to be considered and treated, the national discussion grows ever more polarized. From the storehouse of Catholic social teaching is the perspective that rests in the balance between the Gospel mandate to welcome and uphold the human dignity of the stranger, a nation’s security, and the obligation of immigrants to be law abiding citizens who contribute to the common good. 

Historically the Catholic Church in this country has been a church of migrants welcoming successive waves of immigrant communities – Irish, Italian, Polish, German, Eastern European, Asian, among others. Most Catholics can trace their family roots to immigrants to this land, at some time in the distant or recent past. For decades, Catholic schools have served as vibrant places of welcome and formative outreach to children of immigrants. The presence and mission of Catholic schools have helped generations of immigrants to rise from poverty, illiteracy, and marginalization to take their place in mainstream society. 

The celebration of Catholic Schools Week is an opportune moment to reflect on Catholic education as an apostolate of hope that continues to transform the lives of children from recent or long-time immigrant communities.

Catholic education and the evangelizing mission of the Church

Catholic education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News of faith in Jesus Christ.  “All the Church’s activities stem from her awareness that she is the bearer of a message which has its origin in God himself,” noted Pope Benedict XVI during his 2008 apostolic visit to Washington, D.C. “God’s desire to make himself known, and the innate desire of all human beings to know the truth, provide the context for human inquiry into the meaning of life,” said the pope. 

Catholic schools and parish religious education programs are living communities of faith where the academically rigorous inquiry into the meaning of life is shaped by a student’s encounter with the person of Jesus Christ and the lived witness to faith by catechists, teachers, and administrators. 

Catholic education forms the next generation of society’s leaders and future generations of the Church’s saints. Access to this life-transforming education, provided by a Catholic school, is open to all who seek to share in its mission. Children who are disadvantaged, marginalized, and lacking in opportunity are especially welcome.

(CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Creating a culture of welcome to Latino students

According to a 2016 Boston College study, there are 8 million Latino children of elementary and secondary school age, out of an estimated 14.5 million Catholic children. Of that 8 million, less than 4 percent attend a Catholic school. Reasons for under-representation of Latino children in Catholic schools are many and challenging, and well beyond the scope of this brief column. What I am pleased to describe are initial efforts underway in this archdiocese to support a culture of welcome in Catholic schools so that more Latino children have access to the gift of Catholic education in classrooms across this local Church.

Catholic education as an apostolate of hope

Elise Heil is one of many extraordinary Catholic school principals in the Archdiocese of Washington. On a recent visit to Sacred Heart School in Washington, I saw how Elise, like all our school principals, is a steadfast leader of a vibrant faith community dedicated to advancing the mission of Catholic education in an academically rigorous, faith filled, safe school environment.

Elise happily shared with me the story of Maria Joya, the kindergarten assistant teacher at Sacred Heart School and legal immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1978. At that time, El Salvador, her home country, was engulfed in violence. A year earlier, St. Oscar Romero had been named archbishop, and priests and nuns were being routinely kidnapped or murdered.

Mrs. Joya began her service at Sacred Heart as a cleaner, earning a few hundred dollars every two weeks. She was married at Sacred Heart parish and her three children attended Sacred Heart school, with the help of tuition assistance and parish support. Receiving the sacraments at the parish, her children were formed and nurtured in the faith by dedicated catechists in the parish religious education program. Her daughter went on to attend the Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington, Maryland, and her two sons attended Gonzaga College High School in Washington on full scholarships! Now her daughter works for Catholic Charities. With support from parish and school, Mrs. Joya pursued a teacher certification so she could give back to the community that welcomed and supported her family for some 40 years. 

Catholic education made a positive difference in the life of this immigrant family.

Last year Archbishop Romero was canonized a saint. In the same year, Mrs. Joya crossed personal milestones as she made her last mortgage payment to own her home and marked the college graduation of her three children. Now she inspires other immigrant families as they search for ways to educate and form their children in the faith within the parish and school community. 

Opening classroom doors

Beginning this school year, the Archdiocese of Washington is engaged in a school based initiative to create a culture of welcome to immigrants in our Catholic schools. Just as generations of Catholic immigrant families found support through parish and Catholic schools in the past, this local church is seeking ways to provide opportunities for the immigrant community in our midst today. Latino parents who desire a Catholic education for their children need encouragement to overcome misperceptions about access to Catholic schools and help in navigating through the school application process.

Staff of the Catholic Schools Office are providing such assistance to Latino parents and their children through an archdiocesan wide effort. With this initiative, Catholic school classrooms in this local church are intentionally becoming places of welcome, education, and opportunity for children of immigrants. Through the kind generosity of donors and the keen support of Bishop Mario Dorsonville, auxiliary bishop of Washington, Catholic education in this archdiocese continues to be an apostolate of hope.

(Dr. Jem Sullivan serves as Secretary for Education in the Archdiocese of Washington.)