Proclaiming the Good News: ACE's School Pastors' Institute
“In a world of fake news, you are proclaiming the Good News!”
So said Bishop Joseph J. Tyson of the Diocese of Yakima to a group of over 80 pastors at the summer’s first edition of the School Pastor’s Institute (SPI), a leadership formation symposium for pastors of a Catholic school.
Since 2011, the SPI has brought together 1,143 pastors from 152 (arch)dioceses to collaborate on topics related to school leadership. ACE holds two sessions—each taking place over four days and three nights—every summer on Notre Dame’s campus. Bishop Tyson provided the keynote address at this summer’s first session, and retired Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg was the keynote speaker for the second session.
The SPI includes sessions about how to welcome, recruit, and attract Latino families through to Catholic schools, and Bishop Tyson had come to the SPI straight from a migrant camp in Bridgeport, Washington.
Tyson noted that there are 40 parishes in his diocese, but they add 12 stations in orchards and fields for Sunday Mass. During the rush of the harvest, they will hold Sunday Mass on Wednesdays due to the intense schedule of the farmers during the harvest. “Typically, the largest Sunday Mass in the diocese is at these migrant camps,” he said. Bishop Tyson, a former interim superintendent of Seattle Catholic Schools who speaks Spanish, German, Vietnamese, and Serbo-Croat, is involved with multiple groups on issues related to immigration. He had a simple message for school teachers, principals, and pastors working in dioceses with undocumented students and families: “It’s important that we uphold the dignity of every person, that we serve every person regardless of their legal status.”
Bishop Tyson emphasized that while it is important to stay anchored in the teachings of the Church, this message comes from moral natural law. “When we measure civil law with moral natural law, moral natural law that is available to reason, it certainly anchors our moral reasoning as a Church,” he said. “It’s also the soil from which the law grows. We must remain anchored in moral natural law.”
On the recent separation of children and families, Bishop Tyson was direct. “[What] we’ve been recently experiencing is such an egregious violation of moral natural law. That’s also the basis of our resistance on abortion because it’s that violation of moral natural law. It stems not just from Church teaching, but moral human reason. It’s available to everyone.”
Father Joe Corpora, C.S.C., serves as ACE’s director of university-school partnerships and has led the SPI. Father Corpora was pleased to have Bishop Tyson as the keynote address. “He spoke of [a student’s] deep desire for a Catholic education, an education where science and reason would not be at odds,” he said. “Bishop Tyson had lots of informal conversations with pastors around the topics of immigration reform and horrors going on at the border. I think that the pastors very much enjoyed listening to him. Over the past eight years of the SPI, the keynote speaker–always a bishop–has been from an east coast or midwest diocese. So Bishop Tyson brought a new perspective on that also.”
Tyson started out as a pastor of three urban schools in Seattle and his passion in Catholic schools can be boiled down in three words: “Students. Parents. Pastors.” He shared stories of the sacrifices students and their families have made to attend Catholic schools in his diocese, schools which “have the unique capacity to connect reason and faith, to connect science and religion, for students.”
Tyson admitted there are unique and increasingly complex challenges faced by school pastors from issues of enrollment, financial management, Catholic identity, pastor-principal relationships, and ever-changing face of the Church in their communities. In his own diocese, Bishop Tyson said that the average age is 23 years old. “When I say Mass in English, I can be the youngest in the room. In Spanish, I can be the oldest in the room!”
When Catholic schools are in the neighborhood, it helps the entire community, and it all starts with managing relationships with the parents. Tyson noted that the parents are the “hinge” for Catholic schools. “We will lose these parents if we make Sunday mass a requirement. We are in mission territory with new parents. If we can get the students and their parents by walking through the doors of the Catholic schools, then maybe we can get them through the Church. But not vice versa. You can be sure that if they don’t walk through the doors of the school, they’re not going to walk through the doors of the Church.”
When addressing the pastors, Bishop Tyson emphasized that they play a pivotal role in their communities, often one where they are the best teachers for parents, for staff and faculty, and students. Yet the best teachers must seek to unify rather than divide. Bishop Tyson reprimanded those who fuel sectarian tribalism that cherry picks social issues from Church teaching and sacred Scripture. “The world is awash of false teachers. The devil is always behind these false teachers. The devil seeks to divide. But Jesus wants us to unite.” In the classrooms and parishes, he emphasized that all schools must “teach human reason--that folks know how to think.”
Bishop Lynch emphasized in his talk that pastors must work with their parish communities to support their schools. “Catholic education for the future needs to be more of a partnership and less of a dictatorship,” he said.
In his talk, Bishop Lynch shared several ‘Lynchisms’ or lessons learned from his 21 years in the Diocese of St. Petersburg. During his tenure in Florida, Bishop Lynch was known for supporting all Catholic schools in the diocese and making Catholic in-school education “a pastoral priority.”
“If a school was struggling, having enrollment difficulties or struggling unsuccessfully to make financial ends meet, we offered an option,” Bishop Lynch said. “The elementary school could become a diocesan elementary school with all fiscal responsibility shifting to the diocese.”
It is through creative initiatives such as this, Lynch argued, that Catholic schools can be revitalized. He noted that several of the schools in the diocese took advantage of the offer and none of them were at the risk of closing when he retired in 2016. “If Catholic schools are to survive,” he said, “then a partnership with the diocese extending a “lifeline” is necessary. I would help any pastor who clearly loved his school and didn’t want to close it but who found the finances threatening the parish.”
Bishop Lynch was also instrumental in the progression of the Notre Dame ACE Academies. In 2012 he invited ACE to consider St. Petersburg as potential sites, and after a comprehensive study, Notre Dame opened two ACE Academies at St. Joseph (Tampa) and Sacred Heart (Pinellas Park). This would later be expanded to another ACE Academy at St. Patrick (Largo). ACE and the diocese seek to sustain long-term, comprehensive excellence in these schools by implementing a unique model of Catholic schooling. Lynch praised the ACE Academy model, noting that two of the three ACE academies now have wait-lists for some of the classes while the third’s enrollment is up 35%.
Bishop Lynch agreed with Bishop Tyson’s assessment that it is critical for a school’s pastor to harbor solid relationships with the parents. He emphasized that successful school pastors devote their time to forging positive and healthy relationships with both the students and their parents. “And, dear brothers, the payoff is: be good to their kids and they will do just about anything to help you, becoming more closely identified with your parish.”
Bishop Lynch served terms as the General Secretary of the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). After his retirement, he was invited to spend the fall 2017 semester at the University of Notre Dame. During his time on campus, he reflected that Catholic schools remain the best “tool” the Church has to pass on the faith to another generation. He saw the dividends of primary Catholic school education pay off on campus.
“In my four months on this campus last Fall I came to appreciate the fact that our Catholic schools provide the soil to sow the seed of faith and those who come here from a Catholic schools, especially a Catholic high school are more likely to find something to grasp and hold on to here at Notre Dame.”
He ended his talk with a reminder about the historical mission of Catholic school education. He said, “Finally, did we not get into the whole business of Catholic education in this country in the 19th century to provide a safe environment where the poorer family’s children had a better opportunity for learning than they might receive elsewhere?” While the landscape has changed from the initial days of Catholic school education, there are exciting new possibilities, he argued, and that requires bishops and priests who are enthusiastic and willing to listen.
“Bishops like myself who are enthusiastic about Catholic schools need to listen, learn, and team with pastors who are threatened, afraid, or timid,” he concluded.