Forty-four years ago, in 1974, Catholic Schools Week was established by the National Catholic Educational Association as an opportunity to celebrate the value of Catholic education, not just to the Church, but to society as a whole. I remember that first Catholic Schools Week well. At the time, I was teaching literature and religion to seventh- and eighth-graders, directing the school’s plays, coaching girls basketball, and serving as a substitute cheerleading moderator and Girl Scout leader. In those days, like today, everyone who taught or worked in a Catholic school pitched in and took responsibility for all aspects of the school’s life and culture. We worked together to ensure that the Catholic school experience was — for each member of the community — an education for life.

When Catholic Schools Week was first promulgated, following Vatican Council II, the staffing of Catholic schools was largely starting to shift from religious to lay teachers; local Catholic school boards or committees were being established, and — in general — parish leaders and parents were beginning to participate in the governance of their Catholic schools in ways consistent with the documents and spirit of the Council. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had, just the year before in 1973, published a seminal document on Catholic schools, “To Teach As Jesus Did,” in which Catholic schools were challenged to integrate faith with culture and be built on the pillars of theological content and Catholic traditions: loving community, consistent prayer and authentic service. The bishops emphasized that Catholic schools should focus on more than intellectual development. They must be communities that nurture students’ hearts and souls as well.

Recently, I had the opportunity to reconnect with several of my students from 1974. One is teaching Catholic high school theology in the Bronx, and the other is a mother of five. Both of them, unsolicited, have described their appreciation for how respected they felt in our school at that time and how they grew from the nurturing they received. While the structures, demographics, and curricula of Catholic schools may have changed over the past 44 years, the essence of Catholic education has not.

Catholic Schools Week 2018 brings special reasons for gratitude as we celebrate new and sustainable models of Catholic education in our archdiocese, such as the Seton and Siena Catholic School systems in Milwaukee and Racine, exciting approaches to learning, such as STEM programming and Project Lead the Way in many schools, and extraordinary manifestations of faith development, such as the nine schools that were recently awarded Exemplary Recognition in Mission and Catholic Identity.

During Catholic Schools Week or at any other time in the months ahead, I strongly encourage parishioners, parents, relatives, community members and prospective students to visit one or more of our 92 elementary schools and 15 high schools and experience firsthand the Catholic school difference. In particular, I encourage visitors to note the ways in which our schools evidence the Defining Characteristics of Catholic Schools, identified in a recent document on Catholic education that flows directly from the Holy See’s teaching on Catholic schools and from statements by Pope Benedict XVI and the American bishops.

A Catholic school is to be centered in the person of Jesus Christ, contributing to the evangelizing mission of the Church, distinguished by excellence, committed to educate the whole child, steeped in a Catholic worldview, sustained by Gospel witness, shaped by communion and community, accessible to all students, and established by the expressed authority of the bishop.

These characteristics have been summarized and integrated into the following prayer, written by the principals and other Catholic school leaders of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, as part of our reflection on what it means to serve in schools where faith comes first. Especially during this Catholic Schools Week, we give thanks and praise for the calling we’ve received.

A Prayer for Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee:

Good and gracious God, we pray that the focus and foundation of our Catholic schools will always be the person of Jesus Christ. May we remember that we are called to work together as part of your universal Church to build your kingdom in
our midst.
Let each of our Catholic schools, no matter how large or how small, whether urban, suburban, or rural, be recognized by its commitment to excellence, its efforts to form the whole child, its hospitality towards all, and its intentional development as a community of faith, collaboration, trust, and love.
Help us to view every aspect of our world through the lens of the Gospel and the teachings of our faith, and let every member of our Catholic school communities be a visible example of what it means to put faith into action. Amen.