Catholic Education’s Commitment to Community Service

One of the most important distinguishing elements of a proper Catholic education does not take place within the school’s classrooms, labs, library or chapel. It is our commitment to community service, and it occurs outside the walls and away from the sports fields, often in the poorest sections of the school’s town.

Community Center of Northern Westchester
Volunteers at the Community Center of Northern Westchester, in Katonah, NY

The institutionalization of community service occurred in the U.S. alongside our entry into World War I. During that time the word “volunteer” took on less of a military connotation and evolved rapidly to describe civilians engaged in using their non-martial skills in a patriotic way.

At Kennedy Catholic, the community service program is specifically Christian, and modeled after the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy.

Traditionally, the Spiritual Works are:

  • To feed the hungry;

  • To give drink to the thirsty;

  • To clothe the naked;

  • To harbor the harborless;

  • To visit the sick;

  • To ransom the captive;

  • To bury the dead.

 

…And the Corporal Works are:

  • To instruct the ignorant;

  • To counsel the doubtful;

  • To admonish sinners;

  • To bear wrongs patiently;

  • To forgive offenses willingly;

  • To comfort the afflicted;

  • To pray for the living and the dead.

St. Thomas Aquinas is frequently credited with codifying the Works, or “almsdeeds,” which had long been a part of Church tradition. In his Summa Theologica (ST II-II.30.1), Thomas defines mercy as “the compassion in our hearts for another person’s misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him.” Affective mercy, for Thomas, is purely emotion. It’s the pity we feel for others less fortunate, the sympathy which arises – or should arise – from our empathy.

St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas

The Christian service which Catholic schools like Kennedy mandate is what Thomas would have termed effective mercy. It’s an action that we take to alleviate someone’s suffering. With this in mind, Kennedy Catholic students often do their community service in area food pantries (such as the Community Center of Northern Westchester, in Katonah, NY)  and hospitals.

For a college preparatory school, community service is important above and beyond its theological moorings. Volunteer work shows college admissions counselors that a student is engaged with their community, and, when indexed against a student’s GPA and chart of extra-curricular activities, possesses the kind of strong time management skills that colleges favor.

Shakespeare’s Portia had it right: The quality of Mercy should not be strained. That is, it ought to be spontaneous. So although Kennedy Catholic requires students to complete 120 hours of Christian community service before the end of their senior year, we encourage them – unofficially – to do more.

I am delighted to note that it’s not unusual for a Kennedy Catholic student to have completed more than one thousand hours of Christian community service before graduation.