By Rev. Dan Beeman, Special to The Catholic Virginian

While we often speak in the Church of the “New Evangelization” called forth by the last several popes, the Church has been alive with evangelization in the United States through the Catholic school system for two centuries. Religious women and men came to the United States specifically to build parochial schools to teach the Catholic faith and spread the Good News to children who would otherwise never hear it. In fact, those schools were often built even before parishes were erected – the sole source of regular Catholic influence in communities and families. We owe an incredible debt to the Bishops and religious orders of sisters, brothers, and fathers, for placing such a high priority on the evangelization of our young people.

Through those centuries, Catholic schools have always sought to proclaim the Gospel within the teachings of the Catholic Church to the children of our parishes, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Families today throughout the Diocese of Richmond make significant sacrifices to educate their children in Catholic schools. While families often stretch to make tuition payments, they do so for one consistent reason: they desire their children to know the love of Jesus Christ through the teachings of His Catholic Church. In today’s ever-more secular society some public schools increasingly teach ideas that are contrary to the faith – and sometimes even hostile to it. Our Catholic schools seek to be places of evangelization, which direct the heart of the child toward Jesus in unity with the formation of the Christian family.

What makes a school Catholic? There are important externals, of course. The school should have a Catholic ethos, where the images, words and feel of Catholicism are imbued. The central symbols of our faith should be prevalent and children should have every opportunity to encounter the images of the Saints and Christ Crucified. The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist in the school’s chapel or parish’s church is readily available for a visit. The Sacraments are celebrated: students know the strength of the Eucharist each week and the forgiveness of the Sacrament of Penance whenever it is needed.

What happens in the classroom, on the playing fields and in the hallways is also important. What makes a school Catholic is the ever-present view that every day, every interaction is an opportunity to lead a student or his or her family closer to Jesus through the love of His Catholic Church.

When a student as endearing as a preschooler or as ready-to-graduate as a high school senior is a part of a Catholic school, no matter what circumstance the student faces, the answer from faculty, staff, friends and coaches is always one that is centered on faith in God and His plan for us. That means parents never need wonder if the school is teaching something different than what they teach at home. That means students hear the Good News of Jesus in moments of growth and challenge alike. It also means the student can rest in confidence knowing that she or he is in a safe environment where the most constant desire of teachers and staff is to raise them up to know God’s love and will in their lives. When mistakes happen, mercy abides. When accomplishments are celebrated, God is glorified.

What else makes our schools Catholic? Our hallways are filled with the future Saints of the Church. Pray for them. Love them. Believe in them.

Fr. Beeman, pastor of Holy Trinity, Norfolk, is Vicar for Catholic Mission and Identity for Catholic Education.