Those were the words we heard on January 6, 2019 from the prophet Isaiah in the first reading on Epiphany Sunday. I recalled these same words recently while reading an article about the Archdiocese of New York preparing to close seven Catholic schools at the end of the academic year. How do we as Church repeatedly find ourselves in such disheartening positions? Why does it seem that we are experiencing darkness covering the earth and thick clouds covering the peoples more frequently than experiencing the light of the Lord? Why are we a Church in decline?
Obviously, the answers to these questions are numerous. Extensive research has resulted in volumes of documents detailing the statistical evidence about the decline taking place within the Church. Organizations such as the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) have provided essential information to help us understand more fully the demographic shifts in our parishes as well as the trends in enrollment at our Catholic schools.
The part I want to touch on today is probably a bit more subjective, but also relevant if we are going to honestly look at the challenges facing Catholic education. How have Catholic schools been impacted by the following?
1. The sex abuse scandal and cover-up
2. Lack of solid leadership from the clergy
3. Watering down of Church teaching so as not to offend
4. The loss of Catholic identity
The enrollment challenges for Catholic schools were already in existence prior to the sex abuse scandal coming on the scene in full force. However, that is now a huge part of the gigantic puzzle when looking at a Church in decline. The consequences attached to the abuse scandal are legion--lack of moral credibility, anger, financial payouts, loss of faith, fear, suspicion, and the list could go on and on. Actions have consequences. The ripple effect unfortunately is far-reaching and painful.
The abuse scandal has fueled suspicion and distrust. That certainly does not help enrollment efforts in our Catholic schools. Furthermore, the money paid out for lawyers and settlements during the last two decades is money that cannot be used for ministry. This directly impacts all ministries of the parish, including the Catholic school.
Yes, it is expensive to run a school. However, the generosity of God's people has allowed us to do amazing things in Catholic education. How do we continue this vital ministry under current circumstances?
People want to know that they can trust that their sacrifices of time and financial resources will be used for the building up of the kingdom of God, not subsidizing lawyers. That is a fair expectation to have. If we are going to be forthright, we will readily admit that the sex abuse scandal and subsequent cover-up has done immense harm to recruitment efforts in our Catholic schools. It is way past time to begin doing the right things and regaining the trust of the people. Our schools and our parishes need to be places where holiness is sincerely desired. This, in turn, results in the pursuit of excellence in our other endeavors stemming from our faith in Jesus Christ.
Some parishes have experienced a decline in volunteers. It is more difficult to recruit people for a variety of ministries due to all of the requirements for background checks and safe environment classes. Many of the laity feel that the clergy were the culprits, and yet, it is the laity which suffers the consequences. That is a valid point, and I can sympathize with the feelings of the laity in this regard. Their frustration with the whole situation is understandable. With that being said, I am grateful for the safeguards in place to protect our children. Diligence from all of us may keep us from experiencing these dark times again in the future.
There are instances in which the leadership of our clergy has been lacking in regard to Catholic schools. Some priests feel that a Catholic school is a financial drain on the parish. Subsequently, many priests welcome an assignment to a parish where there is no Catholic school. I understand that having a Catholic school means more work, more headaches, and possibly greater financial challenges for a pastor running a parish. The challenges of leading a Catholic school are many, but the rewards are also great. Handing on the faith to the next generation is no small matter.
Complaints from parishioners about a lack of presence of clergy and religious in our Catholic schools has been a constant refrain through recent years. It is true that we have far fewer clergy and religious teaching in our schools than in past decades. Subsequently, some people make the claim that the students lack a true knowledge of the faith when they graduate. Also, a significant number of young people stop practicing the faith after getting out of school, or even before they graduate. The resulting conclusion by some is that the laity teaching in our schools are ill-equipped to teach the faith. There may be some validity in that observation in certain circumstances, but I don't think it is a complete and accurate picture of the disturbing trend. Many of the laity now teaching in our Catholic schools hold advanced theological degrees and are well-equipped to teach. The scenario is much more complex than that one ingredient.
There are a multiplicity of factors which come into play when evaluating the success, or lack thereof, of passing on the faith. As I look back on my own childhood, the support systems in place were many. If I went to a friend's house, his parents kept an eye on me. If I misbehaved, they corrected me and would also inform my parents. If I got into trouble at school, I got in twice as much trouble at home.
Life in our rural community centered around the Church. Many of us lived on farms and worked hard in addition to going to school. We were taught the values of living a good and decent life. Our Catholic school was a tremendous blessing to our town, but the even greater blessing were the many stable families that made up the close-knit community. Christian love was demonstrated by marriages that endured. Living a faith-filled life was not just preached by the clergy; it was modeled by our elders and taught by our parents.
We can have the best educational system and faith formation processes and still experience mediocre results. Why? The parents are the first and primary teachers of their children in the faith. The Catholic school and the parish religious education program can only support the work of the parents.
For instance, the school or parish can't force the students to go to Mass on Sunday. That responsibility rests with the parents. A commitment to the faith is essential if true formation has any real opportunity of happening. Sadly, our contemporary culture has done a good job of convincing people that there are many other priorities which should take precedence over antiquated religious practices. Our society is now reaping what has been sown.
What role does the liturgy play in helping us grow spiritually? The Sacred liturgy and the Sacraments are key elements of our faith. Praying fervently and faithfully changes us. A reverent and vibrant Eucharistic liturgy is vital for our spiritual well-being, because it is the source and summit of our faith journey. Everything flows from the Eucharist and everything flows back to the Eucharist.
Preaching is only one part of the Catholic liturgy. However, it is an important component. Are the homilies at Mass inspiring, motivating, and faithful to Church teaching? Do parishioners come to know God more fully through the homily? I realize that a homily is not a catechetical lesson. However, a homily can certainly contain some catechesis while breaking open the Sacred Scriptures. Consider the homily as a little window into the soul of the parish.
Can you tell what the priorities of the parish are after attending Mass for a couple of months?
What did you hear in the homilies?
What did the music convey?
What did you see in regard to reverence of the Eucharist?
What did you see in the bulletin?
What message does the parish website convey?
Why do I bring these things up about Mass when the focus of this article is on Catholic schools? The answer is simple. The way we pray influences the vibrancy of our Catholic schools. Our Catholic schools do not exist in isolation. They are part of the larger community.
Thus, all facets of parish life need to be assessed and evaluated. What is the scope and nature of adult religious education in the parish? What opportunities for prayer and service are made available to the adults? The level of priority placed on the Sunday homily, and adult formation overall, will reflect the overall vitality of the parish, including the parish school. If the parish is on solid theological ground and effectively forming adults as mature Christians, it is likely that the parish school will also be on solid ground. Are we proclaiming the Gospel message well across the age spectrum? Are we forming disciples?
The success of any institution or organization rises and falls based upon the leadership. If the pastor is a good leader, the odds are that good people will be hired for leadership positions in the parish and the school. Then the place flourishes.
On the other hand, if the pastor is not a great leader, it becomes even more important for the other leaders to bump up their game. This is especially important for the Catholic school leaders. Regardless of the title--president, executive director, headmaster, principal--the leader of the school is the face of the Church in many different settings. The head of the school models Christ-like behavior, motivates, inspires, nurtures, guides, communicates effectively, and spiritually leads the school community so that the students are formed completely--mentally, emotionally, physically, and of course, spiritually.
This style of leadership is easier to attain if there is good leadership from the person in the role of pastor. However, if there is ineffective leadership from the pastor, the school leader needs to pray and work even more fervently. The spiritual well-being of those entrusted to our care demands that we give our very best and pour ourselves out for them.
Watering down the faith to be more "inclusive" may seem merciful, but it usually leads to confusion and heartache in the long run. There is a difference between being pastoral in our approach to difficult circumstances and simply ignoring the teachings of the Church. We are called to holiness and faithfulness. It is our responsibility, and our privilege, to invite others to share in the tremendous blessing of understanding the fullness of the faith.
Will there be times when people are offended by our stance on certain situations? Absolutely. A clear example is when we choose to stand up for the right to life of the unborn child. The reaction by many members of congress during the State of the Union speech recently demonstrated the level of acceptance of infanticide. We cannot give up our fight to protect the unborn simply because it isn't popular. Church teaching is clear. "Thou shall not kill." Every person is made in the image and likeness of God. We cannot water down the teaching simply to be more inclusive of those who have opposing viewpoints. Relativism is not an option.
In our Catholic schools, we must teach the fullness of the faith.
The loss of Catholic identity in some of our schools is problematic. Being in a Catholic school is about more than having a religion class as part of the curriculum. Our faith is woven into the fabric of everything that we do. We have the Ten Commandments to guide our behavior. We have the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy to prompt us to be "doers of the Word and not hearers only." We pray for an outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit so that our lives will bear the fruits of the Holy Spirit. We have the Sacramental Life of the Church to nurture and nourish us on the journey to sanctity. We seek God's grace and a deepening of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. The treasures of the Church are immense. Our Catholic identity in the school should shine brightly because we understand the value of being a child of God.
I am not familiar with the New York area and have no knowledge of the situations surrounding the schools that are set to close. All I know is that once these institutions are gone, it is not likely that they will ever come back. My heart breaks for the people. St. Brigid School was founded in 1856 according to the article I read. That is a lot of history. The grief will certainly be intense for the people of that local community.
Unfortunately, a multitude of other Catholic schools throughout the nation are struggling to survive as well. The challenges facing many of our Catholic schools are quite daunting. The world is full of adversity, but it is also full of people overcoming adversity. It is time for effective leaders to step forward and bring vibrancy and hope back to our struggling institutions. Is God calling you for such a role?
I give thanks and praise to God for all of our pastors and priests who take up the mantle of leadership. Your task is not an easy one. Please know that God's people faithfully pray for you.
I give thanks and praise to God for all of the people serving in our Catholic schools--administrators, teachers, and support staff. Your dedication and commitment is truly noble. Please know of my prayers for all of you.
I am especially grateful for my childhood school--Immaculate Conception School in Old Monroe, Missouri. This beautiful parish and school gave me a wonderful foundation in faith.
I am grateful for the privilege to have taught at Valle Catholic High School in Sainte Genevieve, Missouri.
I am grateful for the privilege of having served as the principal of Assumption Catholic School in O'Fallon, Missouri
I am grateful for the eight years of serving as the Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
To the people of New York impacted by the announcement of these school closings, please know of my prayers for you. I know the grief that you are experiencing is overwhelming. I am truly sorry for your loss.
My dear readers, continue to pray for the Church. The glory of the Lord shines upon us, but due to our own shortcomings and failures we sometimes immerse ourselves under a thick cloud of darkness. Our Catholic parishes and schools should be beacons of light. Let us continue to work diligently to keep the light of faith burning brightly in our individual lives, our parishes, and our Catholic schools. Remember, "The glory of the Lord shines upon you."