Catholic Schools Week offers an opportunity to step back and assess the contributions made by so many in the education and formation of many of our Catholic faithful over the years.
It was not only the pursuit of academic excellence on the primary and secondary levels but in the formation of a vision of the world through the eyes of a Catholic. I ask many of you who were Catholic students to consider the environment provided when you were students.
Prayer was an integral part of everything that you did. The day began with prayer and special intentions were mentioned. Saints were celebrated as the heroes and heroines of civilization and patronal feasts were often celebrated with a day off.
Bulletin boards were decorated with a sense of the dignity for this life with an eye on the life yet to come. May was the month of the Blessed Mother and the rosary was recited often with students kneeling before a statue of Mary.
The entire school attended First Friday Masses with lunch on Fridays often being Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks or tomato soup. Lent produced cardboard banks to be filled with the pennies, nickels and dimes given by those who sacrificed their recess candies so that pagan babies could be ransomed.
Everything that surrounded the Catholic school student reminded him or her of the responsibility he or she had for gifts given and their accountability not only here and now, but also in the world yet to come.
Sisters and priests were present to reinforce the formational environment, and their witness was many times a vocational challenge for students to envision themselves as future priests and sisters to carry on the work of faith.
We really haven’t understood the impact of the loss of sisters in our schools and the decline in the number of priests available for parish and school work. During the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, many abandoned the mission of Catholic education. Catholic families that once considered it their sacred obligation to send their children to Catholic schools started to send their children to the public schools relying on religious education to supply much needed Catholic teaching.
Religious education was often staffed by well-meaning, good hearted individuals who were not trained or prepared to be catechists, and without a distinct catechism, the essentials of church teaching were often substituted with a feel-good socialization leading to the beginning of generations of illiterate Catholics, those who claimed to be Catholic but, in reality, knew very little about their faith.
There was a lack of support from parishes in the subsidizing of Catholic schools. The decline in the birth rate, shifting demographics and spiraling costs forced many Catholic communities to close the doors of their schools.
I mention these factors because it’s important to understand the challenges in order to appreciate just how far we’ve come.
Many suffer from “nostalgia” — a longing for what we had, and many use that nostalgic vision as a measurement of what we should have today. They bemoan the fact that it’s not the ’50s, instead of appreciating what we have today and the great sacrifices being made by so many in order to provide a quality education, developing a Catholic student prepared to meet the challenges of a secular society that increasingly challenges the Catholic faith he or she professes.
During Catholic Schools Week, take the opportunity to visit a Catholic primary school or Catholic high school to experience the wonderful ministry being provided by our principals, teachers and administrative staffs.
Many of our principals have dedicated themselves to building Catholic education in the archdiocese and do so firmly grounded in the faith. It comes as no surprise that many of our schools have experienced an increase in enrollment due to the leadership of our principals who promote the schools and become well-respected leaders in the community.
Our teachers are well trained in their academic disciplines, but also in the knowledge of the faith. They participate in “Sustaining the Misssion” — religious certification classes authorized by the archdiocese and sponsored by the St. Clare Center at Cardinal Stritch University. These classes increase their understanding of the faith and prepare them to become role models for the students they serve.
If you visit a school, you’ll be surprised at the technology used in classroom pedagogy, with computers, smart boards and iPads all being utilized to promote learning.
Think of how advanced technologically our students must be to compete in the world. At the same time our teachers must be trained not only to offer technological skills, but more so, to offer the human interpersonal skills necessary for interaction on a personal level, deepening the human dimension in their lives.
The school staff breathes life into the everyday functions, making sure that phones are answered, grades recorded, bills paid and floors cleaned.
But the parents and parishioners are the key to a successful school. Think of all the spaghetti dinners, pancake breakfasts, bake sales and chances sold to fund aspects of student life and subsidize school budgets.
So many sacrifice because they believe in Catholic education and see it as a fulfillment of the mission of the church. In most research polls, individuals discover Catholic school students are more likely to be practicing their faith decades after graduation and promoting the social teachings of the church.
During Catholic Schools Week, I will celebrate the achievements of our schools at various Masses throughout the archdiocese.
I am proud of their accomplishments and of our superintendent, Kathleen Cepelka, and her staff that oversees the growth and development of our schools. Our work is not finished but, thanks to the efforts of so many, we’ve come a long way in recapturing our Catholic identity.