Hyingblksuitportrait-20110711-aetAs we celebrate Catholic Schools Week, beginning this Sunday, we offer a big thank you to all of the teachers, staff, principals, students, catechists and benefactors who make Catholic education possible. Whether through a Catholic school or a religious education program, all of us were formed in the Catholic faith because of the dedication, expertise and generosity of many talented people.

Here in the United States, St. Elizabeth Seton, our first native-born canonized saint, was both the founder of an American branch of the Daughters of Charity and the Catholic parochial school system. St. Elizabeth realized that the church needed to create a culture of faith in which young people would naturally grow into Catholic identity and discipleship. Her vision inspired the creation of the largest Catholic educational system in the world. We owe a permanent debt of gratitude to the thousands of religious, mostly sisters, who inculcated the Catholic faith into the minds, hearts and souls of generations of young Catholics who went on to contribute to the common good of this country and the flourishing of the church.

Despite all of the challenges of dwindling numbers, higher operational expenses and diminished resources, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee remains committed to Catholic schools, valuing them as an indispensable means of evangelizing, catechizing and forming our young people to take their rightful place in society and the church.

Through creative merging, effective collaborating and regionalizing of resources, our parochial school system may be structurally leaner but is stronger for the effort. In fact, this past year, our archdiocesan school enrollment increased by 1 percent! This may not sound like much, but it happily flies in the face of national figures of decline.

This strength is due to the dedication of everyone who serves any role in our Catholic schools, from the students and families to the principals and teachers, from the staff to our parishioners. We also thank Kathleen Cepelka, our archdiocesan superintendent of schools, along with her staff, for the remarkable leadership which is forming vision and excitement for the bright future of our local Catholic education. These folks put in long hours and drive many miles because they are passionate about what they do for our young people.

What difference does a religious culture make in the education of our children? I compare it to the experience of the men preparing for the priesthood in the seminary. Formation for priestly service in the church requires the transformation of the entire person. Intellectual knowledge, practical skills, spiritual growth, psychological maturity, emotional balance, excellence in virtue, the ability to love and relate to all kinds of people are just some of the qualitative areas of excellence that a man preparing for the priesthood must gradually exhibit.

Isn’t it the same for our youth? We want them to read and write well, to try out for sports, to get the new math, to know the history of our country, but even more than that, we want them to be good people as they mature.

We want them to believe in God and love their neighbor, to be courteous and to pray, to avoid drugs and promiscuity, to make morally good choices and choose wholesome friendships.

Catholic education has striven to do just that for generations and so God calls us to hand on what we ourselves received – an integrated, holy and wholesome formation as children of God. No wonder the focus of our recent Faith in our Future campaign was Catholic education, in the broadest sense of that term.

Please pray for and support our Catholic schools and formation programs. Consider volunteering your time, energy, money and support to continue this vast effort that began when a solitary young widow held a dream in her heart and opened a little school in Maryland. Catholicism seized the heart of Elizabeth Seton and her conversion to it was so life-changing, she wanted to hand on the gift. So do we!