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Bishop McFadden's Address to ACE School Pastors Institute

Written by William Schmitt on Tuesday, 31 July 2012.

Full Text: July 17 Keynote by Chair of USCCB Committee on Education

This keynote address was presented to ACE's School Pastors Institute on July 17 by the Most Rev. Joseph P. McFadden, Bishop of Harrisburg and chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Catholic Education.

My brothers in the Lord, I am deeply honored to have been invited to again give the keynote address for the School Pastors Institute sponsored by the University of Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE). The contribution that the ACE program has made to the work of Catholic Education in this country in the years since its inception is a real blessing for the Church. As the Chairman of the Catholic Education Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, I want to publicly thank Notre Dame and all those responsible for this initiative. In its document "Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium" the Bishops of the United States called upon our Catholic Colleges and Universities to assist our Catholic elementary and secondary schools in addressing the critical staffing needs of our schools. Notre Dame has not only accepted the challenge but has worked diligently to be a catalyst to help address the various issues that are crucial to the success of maintaining Catholic Schools in the future.

As we gather for this conference I want you to know that the Bishops of the United States are deeply committed to Catholic schools and clearly understand our need to be more aggressive in supporting this important mission in the Church especially in our increasingly secular and materialistic society where the public education system has basically removed any mention of God or prayer from its schools and its classrooms. I had a letter just yesterday from Cardinal Dolan who is the President of the Bishops Conference indicating his desire that the Conference focus more attention on the situation of our Catholic schools and asking that our Committee increase its efforts in articulating more clearly the importance of this work of education in the mission of the Church and make it just as much a priority as the the Bishops stance on pro-life and immigration. He also asked that the Conference become more aggressive in advocating for both federal and local tax credits in support of our educational institutions.


One of the challenges that we face is the increasing financial burden of running a Catholic school and this is an issue that requires great study and attention. It is also an issue that will require great resolve on the part of those involved in this ministry of Catholic education. I am, however, deeply convinced that the Catholic Community not only has the ability but also the means to ensure the existence of our Catholic schools far into the future. However, if this belief is to become a reality it is incumbent that we take a hard look at how our schools are run and operated. We need to re-educate the Catholic community as to the importance of these schools in the mission and work of the Church. We must do so without hesitation or timidity and without being nostalgic in terms of what was in the past, but rather address what is needed for their future success. In that light my address this evening will focus on what I believe are essential elements for the future of our Catholic schools. I also believe this conference will be a great help to all of you who desire to see Catholic education succeed and flourish in our Church and our communities.

In its document entitled "The Catholic School" the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education in 1977 pointed out that the Church establishes schools because she considers them as a privileged means of promoting the formation of the whole person, since the school is a center in which a specific concept of the world, of man, and of history is developed and conveyed. (The Catholic School-Scared Congregation for Catholic Education 1977) This definition of the role of Catholic schools as the place where formation of the whole person takes place is something that we need to understand more fully and to express more effectively in marketing and promoting our schools.

At the same time we must see the schools within the context of the mission of the Church in fulfilling the mandate of the Lord to "Go, therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."(Matt. 28:19) It is this divine mandate that is the motivating and sustaining principle that must be at the heart of every Catholic school. It should be understood clearly that the reason we establish, support and maintain Catholic schools is because we believe the truth about life, the truth about the origin, identity and destiny of every human person is rooted in our understanding of the person of Jesus Christ.

I believe it is important to state up front that in maintaining Catholic schools we should not be portrayed simply as competitors to the public school system that exists in this country nor should our efforts be seen as a lack of support for the public education system. The reality is that we need to support every effort to help all children achieve their God-given potential and to become esteemed members of the human family based on their human dignity as children made in the image and likeness of God. The public schools are not our competition and the product we strive to produce is more than simply a literate person who can achieve economic success. Our message which needs to be consistent in our country today is that Catholic schools do an excellent job of preparing children for life and Catholic parents and children should not be marginalized or denied a fair share of governmental money used for education because of our religious beliefs.

As we embark on this three day conference I would like to take a moment to look at a brief history of the Catholic school movement in this country, to see where it came from, to see how it functioned especially in the 20th Century and to analyze what needs to be done to insure its future in the 21st Century.

The growth of the Catholic school movement in this country really received its impetus from the Plenary Councils of Baltimore in the latter part of the 19th Century. It should be noted that part of the reason for the focus on Catholic education and Catholic schools was the real concern over the anti-Catholic sentiment that pervaded the country at the time, the public animosity toward the immigration that was occurring, and the fact that in the public schools the children were being exposed to a virulent Protestant proselytism with the use of the King James version of the bible and prayers that reflected this ethic. In the Third Council of Baltimore it was decreed that every parish must have a parish school. It was also suggested that these schools were to be free for every child. It was the duty of the whole parish to support this educational initiative and to make this a priority for the parish community. At the same time there were emerging religious communities of men and women who undertook the task of providing the staffing for these schools at little compensation other than a roof over their heads and food to eat. The population that was being served was basically an immigrant population that had many needs such that both the parishes and the schools became the center of life for its members. The parish and the school were one entity and the "CEO" was the Pastor. This model worked well for the first half of the 20th Century. Its success could be attributed to an articulated vision, a committed constituency, a commitment to excellence in education, "cheap labor" and a willingness to do whatever was needed to maintain its viability. (Read this to mean, the selling of wrapping paper, stationary, light bulbs, candy, carnivals, bingo nights, spaghetti dinners and whatever else could bring in a profit to benefit the school).

However, in the last half of the 20th Century there emerged a societal upheaval that changed the landscape and in many ways altered the paradigm upon which the Catholic schools system had thrived in the first part of the century. I do not have to recount for most of you the revolution in society, in the Church and in religious life that took place at that time. Many of the values and traditional institutions that helped support the Catholic schools in the earlier part of that century were ripped apart. Yet in many ways the Catholic schools continued to move forward often with the same structures and the same guiding principles yet now in a radically different environment. It is interesting to look at some facts and statistics from the last half of the 20th Century to get some sense of where we are today relative to Catholic schools.

It should be noted that from 1920 to 2010 the number of Catholics in the United States increased by 28%. There are currently 68.5 million Catholics. I point this out because you would think that this would be an asset to the Catholic Schools and thus a valuable pool for students. At the same time however, there has been a decrease in the number of Catholic Schools from a high of about 13,000 in 1960 to 6,841 in 2012. The enrollment in our Catholic schools which peaked at about 5.3 million in 1960 stands at a little over 2 million in 2011 -2012. In terms of religious staffing for the schools, there were 112,029 religious in 1960 and today there are 5, 023. The number of lay staff in 1960 was approximately 20,000 in 2011-2012 that number is now 146,372.

There has been much research and many studies done in recent years around the challenges facing Catholic schools in the 21st Century. There has been increasing dialogue among many differing constituents as to what can be done to maintain and strengthen our schools going forward. Tonight I would like to add my thoughts to this conversation recognizing that there are no easy answers and yet I believe there are solutions if we are willing to work at them.

First, we must reaffirm unequivocally that the Catholic school is the best place for the formation of the next generation of Catholics. Studies have shown that those who attended Catholic schools in the past are by and large the leaders in our parishes today. They are more faithful in participating in the sacramental life of the Church and in their active engagement in the parish community.

As we move forward however, we need to be constantly evaluating and accessing the work that is being done to make sure the schools are accomplishing the goals that are set for them and also that they have the necessary resources to make this a reality.

In this vein I would like to point out to you a new tool that has been developed by the National Catholic Education Association which is known as "National Standards and Benchmarks for effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools." These standards describe how the mission-driven, program effective, well-managed and responsibly governed Catholic schools operate. The Association developed these standards in the hope that they would give cohesiveness to our articulation of one's understanding of what we mean when we use the term Catholic school and the expectations one can anticipate when they subscribe their child to the Catholic school experience.

In the document there are three types of statements that are grounded in Church teachings, best practices and proven success of those committed to the future of Catholic elementary and secondary education in the United States. It documents the Defining Characteristics which describe the deep Catholic identity of Catholic Schools. It identifies Standards which communicate policies, programs, structures and processes that should be present in a Catholic school. Finally it suggests Benchmarks which allow one to provide observable, measurable, and clear descriptors for evaluating and crafting improvements to the Catholic school experience.

I believe that a prudent use of this tool will help us to better articulate for the wider Catholic community why we need our Catholic schools. We need to explain more emphatically that their maintenance is the responsibility of the whole Catholic community and not simply the parents of the children who attend them. We need to enlist the support of a wider constituency in our community who sees the valuable resource that our schools are to society at large and are willing to partner with us in maintaining their viability.

In promoting the reason for our schools we need to point out that our schools are not only places where one can learn to read and write but they are places where a person is helped to develop their full potential, to be formed in the true values of our Christian faith, to participate in a nurturing and Christ-centered community where one is encouraged to develop his /her relationship with Jesus and with others so that the unique dignity of every person is respected and valued as an important member of the human family and the family of God.

There has been much discussion in the past few years concerning the issue of the Catholic identity within our schools and precisely what it means to be a Catholic school. I would suggest that the Bishops Pastoral Letter issued in 1971 entitled "To teach as Jesus Did" underscores for us the three-fold mission of our Catholic schools – to proclaim the Gospel, to build community and to serve our brothers and sisters.

The school must be a place where the virtue of charity and love for one's neighbor is the touchstone of the daily life and activity of the school. Christian Community service must be fostered as a constitutive dimension of one's formation into the fully formed human person that is the goal of all Catholic education.
We must not be hesitant to point out to parents that our Catholic schools are more important than ever in assisting them in their responsibility as the primary educators of their children. We live in a time and in a culture whose values are progressively more and more secular and humanistic. Unfortunately in our country today the public educational system that is being offered to children is one based on the philosophy of secular humanism. The values of that system are quite contrary to our understanding of human nature and the way the Lord calls us to live. It denies the concept of absolute values and makes man the measure of all things. It exalts a concept of freedom that is more license than true freedom. Our Catholic faith calls us to evangelize our culture and our Catholic elementary and Secondary schools play a critical and irreplaceable role in this effort. Our parents must be warned of the dangers to their children's development that can occur in the public educational system as it is being proffered today. (The issuance of condoms to school children on-line and in the health offices of the schools, plus the mandatory teaching in the curriculum of same-sex marriage being equal to heterosexual marriage and a validation of different understandings of family.)

If we are to maintain and prosper our Catholic schools we must re-evaluate many of the structures and resources that helped in the past, discard what is no longer relevant in the current milieu and put in place the foundation stones that will carry us through to the future.

A crucial element of this is leadership. This is perhaps the most important challenge to the survival of the Catholic Schools. We need to develop, form and train individuals who can guide our schools into the future. The leaders must be totally committed to the mission of Catholic education. They must be faith-filled people who daily practice their faith and will be true role models for the staff and students they will encounter on a daily basis. They must have a passion for the work that needs to be done and a willingness to work to achieve the goals that are put forth. These individuals must embody and live the Catholic identity that we proclaim and be examples of individuals who, with God's grace, have become true disciples of the Lord.

A second element is the governing structure of our schools. While the model of the Pastor as CEO may have been successful in the last century it is doomed to failure in this one. Schools today need a collaborative model of governance which invites a wider pool of talent to help fashion and communicate the direction of the school and its mission. The Second Vatican Council called for a wider participation of the laity in the mission and work of the Church. The school is a particularly appropriate venue for this participation. While the role of the Pastor is vital and important he needs to enlist the skills and talents of his parishioners in the nuts and bolts work of running and maintaining a school today. In most parishes an important resource should be the parishioners who have attended our Catholic schools and who have been successful in their various secular professions and fields of expertise. We must not be shy about asking individuals to give of their time and talent to help in this important and essential work of the Church. I highly suggest here that if your school and parish community are not yet imbued with the "stewardship" understanding of living one's faith that you begin that educative process immediately. I assure you it will make the task of maintaining the Catholic school in your parish a lot less onerous. I believe as well that every Pastor needs the assistance of a Board, even a Board with limited jurisdiction, that will help direct and guide the future well-being of the school. I am not simply referring here to a Home and School Association whose work is often raising money for enhancements to the school program. I am talking about a body whose members will become stakeholders in the future success of the school.

I now turn briefly to two areas that must be addressed in the sustainability and viability of our schools going forward. The two areas are finance and communications. I suggest it is especially here that participation of the laity and people with expertise is vital. There is a cost to education. The financial piece of running and maintaining Catholic schools is a daunting task in the current economic climate. I do want to suggest however, that this is not a new reality in Catholic education. I have a feeling that in the last century that saw the schools survive through a depression and two world wars that this was an issue as well. However, the fact is the resources are available now as they were then if we approach the finances with a strategic and realistic financial plan. Planning is important in any project and is vitally important in the operation of a school.

In speaking about a financial plan I am not simply talking about an accounting spreadsheet. Today when we talk about a financial plan we must talk about development and institutional advancement. This means constructing a plan that will help the school to identify, recruit, and solicit individuals and entities that have the ability and the desire to sustain the school as it goes forward. Recent studies have found that 82 percent of the graduates from Catholic elementary schools would contribute to their schools if they were asked to do so. Another fact that we should keep in mind is that there has never been more wealth in the Catholic community than there is right now. A good financial plan needs to be cognizant of these facts and to develop a strategy to access them. Development is crucial to the success of a school and it is time that we get serious about doing it.

I also want to point out at this juncture another hopeful sign for our schools in the area of finances. In recent years school choice has been gaining momentum in different areas of our country. We know that in some States such as Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania to name a few, there has been the development of initiatives to get government aid to families for the education of their children in schools of their choice. In Pennsylvania the Catholic community and the Bishops joined by other non-Catholic school choice advocates lobbied our State legislators for a full voucher program. While we were not successful in getting a voucher program for every child we were able to get significant legislative support to increase the existing Educational Improvement Tax Credit program from 75 million dollars to 100 million dollars. This program allows businesses to contribute their state tax liability to a qualified scholarship organization to be used for scholarships to low income families. We also got the legislature to create a new business tax credit program funded at 50 million dollars to be used for low income children in the lowest performing school districts in the Commonwealth allowing them to receive scholarships to be used at the school of their choice. While we did not achieve vouchers for all children we believe that we have opened the door for future success in this area. I believe that this type of success can be achieved around the country but we must organize our people to become politically active in this area.

We must also understand that we live in an information age. The global communications network that has come of age with the development of the internet at the dawn of this millennium requires schools to be able to communicate their message effectively to their constituents. This will require a well thought out and well crafted marketing plan for the school. The Catholic schools will not succeed unless they tell their success story effectively to a wider community and promote the success they achieve in working with our young people. People like to support successful endeavors and they like to be associated with what I call a winning program.

As Jesus tells us in Matthew's Gospel," Neither do you light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket where no one can see but rather on a lamp stand so it gives light to all the world."(Matt: 5:15) If we are not telling our story it is to our detriment. I guarantee you that someone else is telling their story and we should not be surprised at their success and our failure. In my own experience as the overseer of the Catholic Schools in Philadelphia I was always distressed that despite having excellent Catholic secondary schools, a number of our Catholic families were sending their children to other Church run Prep schools and contributing to their program. I remember vividly a school by the name of Episcopal Academy whose student body was made up of 60 % Catholics. They had a drive to build a new school complex for 225 million dollars. When I saw a list of their donors I was disappointed to see that a good number of the significant donors to the drive were our own Catholic families. When I asked some of them why they chose Episcopal over our Catholic schools they said it was a better program. When I pointed out to them the achievement of our students and their standard test scores being comparable to those of the Academy they claimed they were not aware of that.

There is no question that the maintenance of our Catholic schools and the education they provide will be an ongoing challenge in the years ahead. However, I ask that we don't dismiss too quickly the ability of a parish to maintain a school or of a Diocese to provide Catholic schools. We must also not underestimate the overall benefits that come to a parish from sponsoring a Catholic school. Always keep in mind that this is about children and the formation that is needed to help them develop into the sons and daughters that God has called them to be. The education they receive in a Catholic school is not merely to prepare them for success in this life but much more importantly for success in the Kingdom of God that is coming about. A parish is called to be a community of faith where the Gospel of Jesus is proclaimed, where God is praised and worshipped, where charity is the guiding principle of all that we say and do and where a person experiences true communion of life and love as the Lord intends.

A good Catholic school in a parish is a life giving entity. The energy that young families bring to the community needs to be harnessed and guided. While a Catholic school is focused on children, I suggest that it has a significant role to play in the formation of Christian families and ultimately the family of God. This is an important work of the Church. In the document of the Second Vatican Council entitled the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) the Council Fathers recognized families as the "domestic Church". Here individuals first experience love, forgiveness and trust. As one ventures forth from the domestic Church the Catholic school should be the perfect corollary for building on the initial experience. The Catholic school must be a family of families where Christ is encountered on a daily basis and where authentic values are learned and lived leading to the transformation of the individual and ultimately all of society into the people of God.

In truth a good Catholic school should be for the Christian community the lifeblood of the parish. It should be forming children to take their proper place within the Church and family of God. It must not only be focused on the notional information about our God and life but it must also be a formational experience where Jesus is encountered, the individual is transformed and God is glorified in His creation.

In sponsoring the Catholic school a parish needs to make sure that the mission of the school is clear to all. The administrators, the faculty and the staff must understand the importance of their witness in living out their Catholic faith. Those who are engaged in the educational mission must be actively practicing their faith and must themselves be active learners in growing in their own knowledge and understanding of the faith. A commitment to spiritual development and a vibrant prayer life, active participation in the sacramental life of the Church with an abiding love for the Eucharist is essential for ensuring that the school is truly Catholic and fulfilling its potential.

To quote Pope Benedict XVI in a talk he gave to Catholic educators in The United Kingdom "the task of a teacher is not simply to impart information or to provide training in skills intended to deliver some economic benefit to society; education is not and must never be considered as purely utilitarian. It is about forming the human person, equipping him or her to live life to the full- in short it is about imparting wisdom. And true wisdom is inseparable from knowledge of the Creator, for "both we and our words are in His hand as are all understanding and skill in crafts." (Wis. 7:16) (Address of Holy Father to Teachers and Religious – St. Mary's University College, Twickenham, Sept. 17, 2010)

On the same trip the Holy Father spoke to young pupils attending Catholic schools in the United Kingdom. Our Holy Father told them that in addressing them he was hopeful that he was addressing some of the future saints of the 21st Century. He went on to tell them that what God wants most for each of them was for them to become holy. He went on to say that God wants the best for them and that is for them to grow in holiness.

In a neighboring Diocese to mine there is a sign in front of its Catholic High school that proclaims it is a school forming future saints. What a marvelous ambition and what a great mission statement for a school. Wouldn't it be nice if the whole Catholic community had the same view of the reason for supporting Catholic schools?

In closing, I thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you as you begin this Conference. I am confident that if we work together and learn from each other's experiences the mission of Catholic Schools in this country will have a bright future. While we may be surrounded by dark clouds do not doubt that the sun will shine again if we will only entrust our work to the Lord, use the talents He has given us and ask Him for His help.

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