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Catholic schools are increasingly welcoming students of different faiths

In a striped bow tie and patterned dress shirt, Ryan Zuccala looks every bit the part of a Catholic prep-school student. His dark hair is neatly trimmed and combed to the side. He’s polite and respectful. He rows for the crew team and aspires to study economics at Princeton University.

Like all Canisius High School students, Ryan attends Masses in the school chapel, goes on retreats and takes mandatory religion classes. He even traveled in February on a mission trip to Nicaragua to help build a church. But the 16-year-old junior from Orchard Park isn’t Catholic. He’s Jewish.

And he isn’t a rarity these days.

Area Catholic high schools increasingly are welcoming students from non-Catholic and non-Christian backgrounds.

“I’ve learned the Our Father. I almost know the Hail Mary. I’ve learned the prayer of St. Ignatius, because we say that a lot,” Ryan said.

Despite his daily immersion in Catholicism, Ryan said he remains committed to his Jewish heritage. He studied Torah as a child, celebrated his bar mitzvah a few years ago and worships in a synagogue, although not as regularly as when he was younger.

About 10 percent of Canisius students were non-Catholic in 2000. Today, it’s 23 percent.

The non-Catholic students include other Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus. Canisius administrators expect the percentage to grow, albeit gradually, as the number of Catholics in the region continues to decline. Administrators at other area Catholic high schools also report higher percentages of non-Catholic students, especially in the past decade. Nationwide, 17 percent of Catholic high school students are not Catholic, up from 13 percent in 2000, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

High school administrators said they can’t pinpoint one reason for the increase in non-Catholic students, although the area’s growing religious diversity has had an impact.

Catholicism continues to have more adherents, by far, than any other faith tradition in Western New York, but the number of Catholics has dipped dramatically over the past two decades. Meanwhile, the number of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus has grown, and some prefer a faith-based approach to educating their children – even if it’s not their faith.

Kanika Gulati of Clarence said she likes the idea that her son, Amit, who is Hindu, is exposed daily to religion, spirituality and reflection on the presence of God in his life.

Amit, a junior, followed his older brother, Amir, who graduated in 2013 and now attends the University of Michigan. A younger sister is a freshman at Nardin Academy, a Catholic high school for girls.

“I’m open-minded. To me, if anything it was a positive,” their mother said. “It’s never been a threat.”

More diversity

Canisius isn’t the only Catholic high school with a growing number of non-Catholic students.

About 22 percent of the student body at St. Francis in Athol Springs is not Catholic. That includes more than 30 international students, mostly from China, who tend to be agnostic or Buddhist.

“They want the moral upbringing. They want their son exposed to a smaller institution where he will be looked after and pushed and prodded,” said the Rev. Michael Sajda, president of St. Francis.

At St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute in the Town of Tonawanda, about 19 percent of the students identify as non-Catholic. Most are Christian, said Robert Scott, president. The school currently has four students who are Muslim and another who is Jewish, he said.

“They accept who we are, and we accept who they are,” Scott said. “We catechize. We don’t evangelize. We bring the Good News. That’s part of what we do, and it’s a big part of what we do.”

Forty percent of the 220 students enrolled at Niagara Catholic High School in Niagara Falls are not Catholic.

“We’re the only private high school in Niagara County, so ultimately we’re the only other game in town,” said Ronald Buggs, president and principal of the co-educational school. “We’re a pretty diverse institution. To a certain degree, it creates challenges, but it also creates opportunities for kids to learn about other faiths.”

The high percentage of non-Catholic students at Niagara Catholic hasn’t made the school any less Catholic, Buggs said.

“Students don’t have to walk out of here Catholic when they graduate,” he said. “But they will understand fully what the Catholic faith is and what we espouse.”

Mount Mercy Academy, located in the heart of South Buffalo, can no longer rely on a parochial school pipeline for its students, because so many of those schools have closed over the past decade. The school has become more diverse, with Buddhists, Muslim and Jewish girls enrolling.

“That Irish Catholic personality is not necessarily the case anymore,” said Sister Mary Ellen Twist, president of Mount Mercy.

Administrators at several Catholic high schools said they now get as many as half of their students from public schools.

And the students who identify as Catholic aren’t nearly as versed in the ways of the faith as they used to be.

“Even among our Catholic student body, we’re discovering a lot of students aren’t as churched as they once were,” said Kevin McLaughlin, chief operating officer of Bishop Timon-St. Jude High School. “They barely know the Our Father.”

Respecting traditions

Still, the growing influx of non-Catholics has created some interesting dynamics at area high schools.

Christian imagery abounds in the hallways and classrooms of Canisius, and for some Muslims, any such adornments can be a distraction during their required Friday prayers.

So when some Muslim students approached administrators about the possibility of a small space in the school devoid of any imagery, the school found a room.

“I think the challenge is to be respectful of peoples’ faith traditions. That includes respecting our traditions and respecting their traditions,” said the Rev. Fred Betti, director of campus ministry at Canisius.

Betti remembers “being a little piqued” when an evangelical student refused to refer to him as “Father,” as Catholics do. The boy instead referred to Betti as “Reverend,” which is generally a more Protestant title for clergy. But the priest understood that the former title was simply foreign to the boy.

Introductions to religion class in a Catholic high school can be tricky for non-Catholics.

Amit Gulati grew up with a firm understanding of kharma and dharma and other Hindu concepts such as moksha, the state of being released from the circle of death and rebirth, roughly akin to a Buddhist nirvana or a Christian heaven.

“I really knew nothing about Jesus, except that he was the son of God, according to Christianity and Catholics,” Amit said.

Hindu scripture bears little similarity to the Christian Bible, so Amit was lost when a teacher called on him to read from the New Testament during that initial class.

“The religion teacher asked me to open up the Bible to John, chapter whatever, and I was, like, ‘What?’ I had no idea where anything was,” he said.

But Amit learned quickly to embrace the material, instead of rejecting it outright.

Ryan had a similar experience early on. The freshman religion course focused primarily on Christianity, and Ryan said “it definitely took a lot more work” for him to get a decent grade.

Some parents ask if their non-Catholic children can get a pass on the religion courses, which cover ethics and world religions, in addition to Catholic thought and practice. But administrators said no students are exempt, and non-Catholic students usually end up doing fine.

All students also must participate in school community Masses, which also can be a little awkward for non-Catholics.

Ryan said his older brother, Joshua, who graduated from Canisius in 2012, warned him not to make the same mistake at Mass that he did. As a new freshman trying to fit in, Joshua Zuccala followed his fellow classmates and received the Holy Eucharist during one Mass – not knowing that the sacrament was reserved for Catholics.

“My mom was like, ‘You did what?’ ” recalled Joshua.

Ryan and Amit said they haven’t felt out of place at Canisius or pressured into changing their beliefs.

“I don’t agree with a lot of the Christian teachings, but it’s not as if I go around and actually say it,” Gulati said.

Rather than a cross, he wears an Om pendant under his shirt, a symbol of the sacred Hindu eternal syllable often used in meditation.

But Amit said he’s not uncomfortable around the plethora of statues inside Canisius depicting Jesus, Mary and other revered Catholic figures.

“You begin to appreciate it,” said Amit, as he sat inside the Canisius chapel, near a large statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. “I kind of embrace it. I think sitting in here, it’s a nice place to be.”