‘Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed’: Catholic Schools Week 2020

Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M.
Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.

A message from Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.

Every generation has the obligation and responsibility to educate the next generation.  That involves the teaching of subjects like math and science, language and literature, history and health, among others. 

In public discourse, there is much discussion about the efficacy and success of public school systems throughout the United States.  It is frequently the fodder for political debate, although politicians often seem to forget about it once the election is over.  Citizens pay taxes to support our public schools with mixed results.  Some public schools have excellent success rates, teaching well and graduating their students, while others seem incapable of digging themselves out of the hole of consistent disappointment and failure.

Catholics are no less bound to educate their young in the same subjects than their public counterparts.  There is something else, however; something that is more than just a subject in the curriculum that is not found in public schools. Rather, that something is an atmosphere, a culture, an environment, a spirit, yes, even a vernacular that pervades the Catholic school community … and that is the Catholic faith. 

In the Catholic school, the Catholic religion is a subject to be taught, learned, loved and lived well beyond the doors of the Catholic school building.  Although, as the Second Vatican Council reminds us, Catholic parents have always been considered the primary teachers of the Catholic faith by the Catholic Church, they depend upon Catholic schools to support and strengthen what they believe as Catholics.  Catholic education — whether in the Catholic school, the parish religious education program or in the Catholic home school — truly Catholic education is the best and most important way for parents to hand on, nurture and promote the Catholic faith for and within the next generation.  To neglect or surrender this obligation, whatever the reason, is to risk the loss of the Catholic faith not only for this generation but for generations to come.

Having devoted my entire life as a priest to Catholic education at all its levels, there is a real sadness that fills my heart when I see more and more Catholics schools close in dioceses and parishes throughout our country — and, especially in our own diocese, as we have seen recently.

 At one time, the Catholic school system in the United States was the best and the biggest and the brightest in the world!  The history of Catholic education here can be traced back to the early 17th century when being a Catholic was neither popular nor politic.  But the Church persevered, despite significant obstacles placed in its path.  The seeds of faith sown by heroic priests and religious women and men and parents took root and God blessed their efforts as the Catholic faith grew and spread.  With names like John Carroll, Elizabeth Ann Seton, John Neumann, Elizabeth Lange, Theresa Duchemin and Katherine Drexel, the early history of Catholic education in our country was written. 

And no one can ever forget the countless religious women who made teaching the Catholic faith their life’s work, regardless of the personal cost and sacrifice.  These brave and selfless women, whose names may never be known or remembered, built the Catholic Church in our country, literally from the ground up, child by child, grade by grade, school by school until every Catholic family in our nation had the chance to hear the “Good News” of Jesus Christ and to learn their Catholic faith.  Catholic education made a difference not only in our Church but in our American society.  That is the legacy of the Catholic school.

When he visited the United States in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI spoke to Catholic educational leaders in the United States at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.  I sat next to him on the stage that day as he told us:

Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News. First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth (cf. Spe Salvi, 4). This relationship elicits a desire to grow in the knowledge and understanding of Christ and his teaching. In this way those who meet him are drawn by the very power of the Gospel to lead a new life characterized by all that is beautiful, good, and true; a life of Christian witness nurtured and strengthened within the community of the Lord’s disciples.

Our Holy Father continued:

This task is never easy; it involves the entire Christian community and motivates each generation of Christian educators to ensure that the power of God’s truth permeates every dimension of the institutions they serve. In this way, Christ’s Good News is set to work.

As true as his words were and are — and I believe they are — the fact of the matter is Catholic education and Catholic schools in particular are at serious risk.  While there is no question that our Catholic schools do an excellent job at educating our young people across the curriculum — graduating more students and sending more graduates to college than their secular counterparts — Catholic schools infuse their students with the “Good news of Jesus Christ” and with the Catholic faith intended to last a lifetime, with light and hope so contrary to what our contemporary, relativistic society offers.  So, what is the risk?

                Only 17 percent of Catholic adults attend church on Sunday in the Diocese of Trenton.  A large majority of young Catholics in our religious education programs do not continue to study their faith beyond the time they receive Confirmation and they absent themselves from Mass.  Some studies have indicated that young Catholics decide to cease practicing their Catholic faith at the age of 13!

                Enrollments in Catholic schools are steadily declining, causing Catholic schools to close because the resulting revenues are just not there to sustain them and pay just salaries to their faculties and staffs.  Parishes simply cannot afford giant subsidies necessary to keep their schools’ doors open, and parents cannot absorb the costs.  Some schools in our Diocese have closed. And more may follow. How is the Catholic faith to be handed on and nourished? 

The number of Catholic marriages has plummeted in recent years and Catholic families whose parents and grandparents loved and practiced their Catholic faith are not even seeking Catholic funeral Masses for them.  Recent scandals in the Church have driven otherwise practicing Catholics to question the moral authority and credibility of those responsible for leadership in the Church.  With increasing numbers of Catholics advocating against the sacredness of all human life and the dignity of traditional marriage, the mainstream media has convinced some otherwise faithful Catholics that long-held Church teachings are “out of touch” and irrelevant to contemporary life. 

Even the cherished religious freedom as Americans to believe what we believe and practice our Catholic faith is under attack by the very government that was established to protect that freedom.  American historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. once wrote that “anti-Catholicism is the deepest held bias in the history of the American people.”

                These are facts.  So, what do we, as Catholics, do?  Give up?  Give in?  Surrender to the risk?  Never!  The stakes are too high.  The battle has been too hard fought.  The prize, too precious.  The sacrifices upon which the Catholic Church in our country has been built have created too solid a foundation to let it crumble.  “You are Peter,” the Lord Jesus promised, “and upon this Rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).  And in another place, “The gate is small and the road is narrow that leads to life” (Matthew 7: 14).

                When our Colonial forefathers faced tyranny and suppression from their enemies, did they give up?  No.  Had they done so, America would never have been born.  When our citizens in blue and grey confronted each other in Civil War, did slavery prevail?  No.  Freedom won the day and the union was preserved.  When two world wars spilled the blood of so many women and men in uniform defending our nation and its sovereignty, did they surrender?  No, they fought on to victory.  When Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. stood up to prejudice and unjust discrimination, did widespread opposition or jail or even an assassin’s bullet weaken the cause of civil rights?  No.  They changed a nation.  Countless stories and profiles in courage in our history, despite the odds, have blended together into the faith we still have in America.  When one door closed, another opened.

                Can the Catholic Church show less courage, less faith in the face of adversity?  We need look no further than the Lord Jesus Christ himself and the Cross that he bore for the answer.  The tree of man’s defeat became his tree of victory.  The martyrs, the saints of old, the people of faith who have prayed and sacrificed and struggled down through the ages have handed on to us in our time a Catholic faith that still is holy, that still elicits hope, that still inspires love, come what may.

                When he announced the “The Year of Faith in 2012,” Pope Benedict XVI called this year a time “to rediscover the content of faith that is professed, celebrated, lived and prayed and to reflect on the act of faith is a task every believer must make his own (Pope Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei, 9).”  He addressed that instruction to all of us in the Catholic Church.  That is why we need a “new evangelization” — a renewed sense of what is possible in Christ in the face of what seems impossible.  And when we have a sense of what is possible in Christ, our courage is strengthened, our convictions become firm, our resolve is emboldened, our hope is restored and our faith prevails.

The gift and grace of Catholic education introduces us to what is possible in Christ.  That is what our Catholic faith does and what Catholic schools offer.  They are “integral to the mission of the Church” because they provide our children with “an encounter with Christ,” who makes all things possible.  I am reminded of that passage in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “How can they call on him in whom they have not believed?  And how can they believe in him if they have not heard?  And how can they hear without someone to preach?  And how can people preach unless they are sent? … Thus faith comes from what is heard and what is heard comes through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10: 14-17).

Catholic education — the Catholic school, the Catholic religious education program, the Catholic home — enables us to believe, to deepen our faith and to hear the Word of Christ, indeed, to encounter him, through those who have been sent to share with us the “Good News.”

Our Holy Father Pope Francis has taught that “true education enables us to love life and opens us to the fullness of life” (Pope Francis, “Address to Catholic Teachers and Students,” 2014). In essence, that love for life is what Catholic schools inspire in their students.  Everything that happens in the Catholic school is a call to those students to be the very best they can be in life: not simply by getting by; not just by putting in another day. 

Catholic schools recognize that their students are the future of our nation and our world.  President Kennedy said it well: “Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future (UNICEF Appeal, July 25, 1963).” And we only have a few precious years to make them aware of that and to help them realize their potential.

“Catholic schools have it all,” we often say in the Diocese of Trenton.  The excellence in “true education” that we impart in the Catholic school is what makes the world better, safer, more just, more loving, more ethical, more peaceful … more holy.  What could possibly be more important or greater?  This year, as we celebrate Catholic Schools Week with the theme “Learn, Serve. Lead, Succeed,” let all Catholic families in the Diocese of Trenton ask and answer that question.

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