As we participate in the national celebration of Catholic Schools Week in the United States, I am compelled to once again promote this wonderful mission of the Catholic Church. Sure, it’s part of my job…but why should the Church, the entire people of God, join me in celebrating Catholic schools?
As our local bishop, Robert Cunningham, likes to say, Catholic schools remain the single most effective tool we have, outside of the family, to pass on the traditions of our faith. This is an awesome responsibility indeed. Are we up to it? I believe we are up to it if our Catholic schools are actively engaged in the life of the local Church. Because while Catholic identity of a school must always be our number one priority, the same is true of our parishes, our hospitals, our offices, our entire diocesan family. It is not the responsibility of the Catholic school to be the ONLY tool that we have to pass on the traditions of the faith. It is not the responsibility of the Catholic school to be the ONLY place where Catholic identity is animated. And the faith must be authentic to the Gospel and consistent with the teachings of the Church. Admittedly, this is a significant challenge in our schools in so far as we must continually form our teachers in the faith, inspire our administrators to be authentic spiritual leaders, and assure that our boards understand the critical differences between Catholic schools and public schools. But we can’t do it alone; Catholic schools can’t explore identity in a silo. We need our entire Church to reflect on Catholic identity so that all of us are building the kingdom with the same tools. And it is this sense of community, this sense of collaboration that causes reason to celebrate.
Another reason to celebrate our Catholic schools can be summarized in one word: choice. Our schools offer parents a choice between parochial education and public education. This is a wonderful gift! But more must be done so as to put our schools on a level playing field with our partners in education, the public schools. For example, is estimated that in New York alone taxpayers save nearly $9 billion annually because of the existence of non-public schools like ours. That is not a misprint: $9 BILLION are saved by having schools like ours. Catholic schools are a benefit to the state so why not lobby our government officials to provide incentives to parents to enroll their children in Catholic schools? Tax credits and voucher models are being implemented across the country in an attempt to ease the burden of state government and to encourage parents to choose the best education for their child. This year we can celebrate the success of the state of Indiana getting this accomplished. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could say the same about New York next year? The impact would be significant but we must be cautious and remember that this is not a magic fix. When parents in New York receive such incentives we will compelled to talk even more about the issue of quality in our Catholic schools.
Quality: the single most important reason that our parents choose our Catholic schools. They expect quality catechesis, quality academic programs, quality facilities, and quality athletics. In our world today we hear more and more about “return on investment”. That is, what can one expect to receive on what they are spending? What can we say about this in Catholic education? At the end of a six year junior/senior high school experience in our area, a parent could expect to invest about $30,000. What is the return on that investment? In our five high schools the combined graduating classes of 2012 received over $23,000,000 in scholarship offers. That’s an average scholarship offer of $69,000 per graduate and an excellent return on investment! And our elementary parents can take pride in knowing that the investments they make in the elementary schools give their children increasing opportunities for scholarships at our five diocesan high schools. In addition, an elementary Catholic education lays down firm foundations for a life filled with Catholic values and excellent academic skills. Our parents, priests and alumni should be proud of the investments they are making in our Catholic schools across the Diocese of Syracuse. These are investments that will pay dividends for life.
Finally, we can say with confidence that Catholic schools mirror the life of community that we want our young people to know as they mature in their faith. Time and time again visitors to our schools tell us that there is a culture of community from the moment they walk in the doors. Isn’t this what our young people need today? Blessed John Paul II once said of Catholic schools, “Transmitting knowledge about the faith, though essential, is not sufficient. If students…are to gain a genuine experience of the Church, the example of teachers and others responsible for their formation is crucial: the witness of adults in the school community is a vital part of the school’s identity.” What we can celebrate then, is the witness of faith that our teachers aspire to each and every day. These are dedicated professionals. But more than that, our staff members across the diocese are men and women committed to creating an atmosphere of caring, respect, and dignity for the young people entrusted to their care. Without them our buildings remain buildings. With them, the Gospel of Jesus Christ becomes present each day.
There is much to celebrate this Catholic Schools Week! We are very proud of the work that we do here in the Diocese of Syracuse, in twenty two schools, across all seven counties of Central New York. Spread the word in your parishes and in your neighborhoods: Catholic Schools Work.