I have to confess that I gave a little sigh when I saw that this year’s theme for Catholic Schools Week was “Celebrate Service.” Now, don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe that serving others is at the very heart of what it means to be a Catholic Christian. What I firmly oppose is packaging Christian service in slick marketing schemes designed to promote and benefit an institution instead of really to help the needy. I am reminded of the times when, as a child, I would offer to help my mother bake cookies just so I could snitch some of the chocolate chip dough. My offer was not about being of help to my mother, and I am quite sure she knew what I was up to. Likewise, I believe God knows what we are up to when we parents and educators push our children and students to “do” service hours for the sole purpose of fulfilling a requirement or padding their college applications.
Serving others shouldn’t be something that we “do”, but something that characterizes our very person, something that comes as naturally as breathing to a well-formed Catholic. What good, for example, have we taught the president of a high school’s service club if, while running down the hall to make the service club meeting, he or she consistently blows by the janitor without a word of thanks, yells “tough luck” to a friend who failed today’s exam, and calls his or her mom and sighs, “Can’t stop by the grocery store for you after school. Sorry. The service club called a meeting, and, anyway, they’re going to order us pizza.”
Yes, it’s tough to be genuinely thankful or compassionate when the timing is inconvenient, and, yes, we all have to prioritize conflicting demands on our time, energy, and money. There are, however, some ways that we as parents and educators can either help or hinder our children in the process of integrating service into their faith lives. A short examination of our own motivations and of our expectations of our children is a good place to start. Do we help or teach our children or students to help only when it will get noticed or add up to a reward? Do we help in order to gain prestige or earn esteem? Are we more concerned with documenting than performing our service? Do we give help as a way to manipulate the receiver? Do we know, or even care to know, the names or personal stories of those we are helping?
As a parent and as a Catholic educator, I have set a controversial, but firm policy in our Catholic home school. Students may not, under any circumstances, keep account of their Christian service. I have this policy because I resolutely believe that once we begin to keep track of “hours” of service, we will inevitably lose track of why and whom we are serving. My students/children regularly do things like tutor one another, pray for the unborn and their mothers, shovel snow for neighbors, cook meals, give their own money to missionaries, e-mail with their grandparents, serve on the altar at Mass, and change our one-year-old’s diaper. Which of these should I tell them to count as official service activities? None. All of these should be done as naturally as breathing and therefore, do not need to be added up, average out, and presented for approval like a grade point average to me or anyone else.
I love the way service has been reinforced to my teenagers at Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth, MA. Instead of service hours, students are required to participate in one of several organized service experiences and then to write a paper on the experience. Created by Bishop Stang faculty members, Kathleen Ruginis and Jean Revil, the service program is called F.I.A.T. (Faith in Action Together) and is beginning to be used by confirmation programs, youth groups, and schools across the nation. The genius of the program is that it uses Mary and her “fiat” or “yes” to the challenge and responsibility of being the mother of Jesus as its primary role model of Christian service.
Now with that I can give a sigh of relief over this year’s theme for Catholic School’s Week. When we look at how Mary served we are not using service as a way to promote either ourselves or our institutions, but as a way of learning how to respond to God’s call for us an individuals and how to love our neighbors as ourselves be they inside or outside our homes. One simple question clears up for me how we should be teaching our Catholic children and students to tally up their service: How many hours would the teenaged Mother of God have recorded for her service to Jesus? None. Service was not something Mary would have done, but something that would have characterized her very being. May it be the same for us and all our Catholic children and students.