For city kids and city neighborhoods

It’s commencement season and tens of thousands of students are graduating from inner-city Catholic elementary schools. As decades of empirical research have shown, these kids have a better chance of successfully completing high school and college, and are better prepared to life-after-the-classroom, than their peers attending government schools. These inner-city Catholic schools are “public schools” in the best sense of the term; they’re open to the public (not just to Catholics), and they serve a genuine public interest, the empowerment of the youthful poor.

There is ample research to demonstrate inner-city Catholic schools’ educational excellence, going back to the pioneering Coleman/Greeley studies in the 1970s. Now comes an even more comprehensive claim about the positive impact of these schools: for, according to two law professors at the University of Notre Dame, Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett, inner-city Catholic schools are important factors in urban renewal as builders of “social capital” on inner-urban areas.

The research that led to Brinig and Garnett’s important new book, “Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America” (University of Chicago Press), began when one of the authors attended a 2008 meeting in Washington, D.C., at which various interested parties considered the educational impact of closing Catholic inner-city schools, a sad process that had become a national plague. It wasn’t just the loss of educational opportunity that was mourned at that meeting; people would also say, “When the (Catholic) school closes, the neighborhood just isn’t the same,” or “The whole neighborhood suffers when a (Catholic) school disappears.”

Their interest piqued, Brinig and Garnett, fellows of Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives, decided to test that anecdotal evidence of Catholic schools’ neighborhood impact empirically. The results of their research, they concede at the outset, are both heartening and chastening:

“We concluded that Catholic elementary schools are important generators of social capital in urban neighborhoods … Catholic school closures precede elevated levels of crime and disorder and suppressed levels of social cohesion. Conversely … an open Catholic school in a neighborhood (correlates) with lower levels of serious crime … Catholic schools matter to urban neighborhoods not only as educational institutions – although, to be sure, they matter a great deal educationally – but also as community institutions.”

By “social capital,” Brinig and Garnett mean “social networks that make urban neighborhoods function more smoothly – the connections that draw residents together and enable them to suppress evils like crime and disorder.” And that “social capital” cashes out, so to speak, in many ways. It fosters good citizenship and political participation, but as the Notre Dame authors suggest, it can also be expressed in “collecting a vacationing neighbor’s mail, or calling the authorities to report suspicious activity, or picking up a discarded fast-food container from the street.” The social capital that inner-city Catholic schools help build is “spent” in living according to a sense of responsibility for the common good, not just living for immediate gratification. And that “spending” increases social-capital formation in inner-city neighborhoods.

Inner-city Catholic schools are in deep financial crisis, with strapped dioceses scrambling to find the dollars to subsidize indisputably effective schools that can no longer support themselves by themselves. Brinig and Garnett argue that, given their demonstrably positive impact across society, these schools should be given a fighting chance through mechanisms like tuition tax credits or vouchers, with public funds going to the child to enable students to attend an inner-city Catholic school. But perhaps there is another, parallel, intra-Church mechanism that could be seriously explored.

Several years ago, I suggested to a leading U.S. Catholic bishop that the Campaign for Human Development be transformed into a campaign for inner-city schools, because, as Brinig and Garnett demonstrate, these schools are the Church’s best anti-poverty and empowerment program – indeed, they may be America’s best anti-poverty program. My hunch is that the annual CHD collection would at least quadruple if CHD were retrofitted to support inner-city Catholic schools, period.

For the kids and the neighborhoods: why not?

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.