The other day, one of my freshman students approached me and asked if there was such thing as an AP Theology class. AP Theology? When I looked at him strangely, he told me the material I was covering was basic, “a review from last year.” I was a bit perplexed. It made me wonder: am I challenging my students enough? Am I giving them hard enough theological concepts to study? I let it bother me until I recalled another student who approached me the week before to say the material was way “over his head.” These two “bookend” statements left me wondering where the balance is when it comes to teaching high school theology.
The difficulty in teaching theology at the high school level is that there is arguably a wider array of faith backgrounds than at the grade school level. I’ve not vetted this out with hard numbers, but most (if not all) of my own children’s grade-school friends are Catholic. One-third of my high school students aren’t, and of those who are, many have never had a single theology class.
This can be both challenging and rewarding. It’s challenging to teach a lesson about Old Testament messianic prophecies when a large portion of the class has never heard of Isaiah. It’s a pragmatic balancing act between giving them the material they need to learn, and an experiential encounter with Christ that will motivate them to want to learn it. Although the former is certainly important, I think what kids at this age need most is the latter.
This whole question of faith prowess could truly be broadened into conversations about academic or athletic backgrounds and where those disparities fit into our Catholic school communities. I attended grade school at Christ the King in Detroit and high school at Catholic Central. My kids go to St. Edith, in Livonia, and St. William in Walled Lake. I’ve taught high school at Livonia Ladywood and St. Mary’s Preparatory. While many educators have been involved in Catholic schools far longer than I, what I’ve learned is that each school has its own personality.
Some schools excel most in academics, while others are more service-minded. Some excel at athletics, while others are proficient in opening their arms to kids with special needs. All of them are wonderful, Catholic environments. But that doesn’t mean they’re all good fits for every student.
When we examine the Gospels, Jesus didn’t choose only one “type” of person to spend time with – he ate with both sinners and the righteous. Nor did he choose disciples who would fit into many of today’s molds. The head of his church was a weak fisherman who would deny him three times. He chose a woman from whom seven demons had been driven, a scholar who would betray him, a doubter, and a bunch of other guys who, by today’s standards, might not “meet the mark” of a strong Catholic school student. But he chose them because he saw something within them – a small spark that needed only to be lit.
Our Catholic schools do a wonderful job of educating our children. I just pray we don’t ever become more concerned with the size of our test scores or trophy cases than we are at embracing the kids who need it most. And I pray the “bottom line” is just as much about what the school can do for the student as what the student can do for the school.
When I talk to parents, I hear a number of reasons why they send their kids to Catholic schools: Some do it because it’s a more rigorous environment, others do it for the sports, and still others because they want their kids to have a strong Catholic background. I say, “thank you” to those who have so unselfishly challenged and accepted my kids, and “thank you” to the parents who so unselfishly allow us to teach yours.
I’m confident that together we can uphold what it truly means to be “universal.” In order to do that, we’ll be called to challenge our kids the ways we have been – and embrace the disparity between those who understand Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, and those who haven’t quite encountered God … yet.
Paul Stuligross is director of campus ministry at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Preparatory and is a former police officer.