December 3, 2014
CLIFTON — Catholics schools in the U.S. continue to face serious challenges, but Catholic education in the Paterson Diocese and elsewhere still deserves enthusiastic and generous support, because of the vital role that it plays in the religious formation of young disciples and in inspiring them to spread the “Good News” of the Gospel — all while providing quality academics.
That’s the message that three speakers, including Bishop Serratelli, imparted to a meeting of all priests in the Church of Paterson on Nov. 18 at the John Paul II Pastoral Center here. That afternoon, presenters explored the topic of “Catholic education as a privileged means of evangelization” and parishes’ support for it, said Holy Cross Brother William Dygert, diocesan school superintendent.
In his opening address, Bishop Serratelli encouraged the teaching and evangelistic missions of Catholic schools. Father Ronald Nuzzi, senior director of the Alliance for Catholic Education Renewing Identity Strengthening Evangelization (ACE RISE) at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind., spoke about why Catholic schools deserve support by parishes. Richard Pendergast, a senior consultant for Wisconsin-based Meitler Associates Inc., shared the results of a demographic study of school-age children in the three counties of the diocese: Sussex, Passaic and Morris.
“We need to envision a new way to make schools more available for the future,” said Bishop Serratelli, who added that Catholic education deserves support from all clergy — from those priests, who have Catholic schools at their parishes, as well as from those who do not. “The vitality of the Church is increased by the presence of Catholic schools,” he said.
But many challenges threaten Catholic education. Over the years, one-half of Catholic schools in the U.S. have closed. Among the reasons for the decline in enrollment include: many families are not religious today, parents cannot afford the tuition and public schools have become competitive, thanks to ample government funding, Bishop Serratelli said.
“Also, we are losing interest in supporting good Catholic schools today. Religion has lost its influence in families and in the U.S.” Bishop Serratelli told clergy who serve the diocese. “ Some parents ‘home-school’ their children or send them to Catholic schools, but they are often lax in their own practice of the faith, making formation [of their children] more difficult,” said the bishop.
In his talk, Bishop Serratelli challenged priests to support Catholic education as part of their mandate that originates from the Bible.
“The first duty of a priest is to teach,” said the bishop, noting that Jesus at the end of Matthew’s Gospel instructs his disciples to “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” “Teaching belongs to all of us in the priesthood,” he said.
Father Nuzzi, a priest of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, emphasized in his presentation that Catholic education has a ultimate goal: to help students “develop a full understanding of the Incarnation.” All subjects in a Catholic school’s curriculum impart to students religious principles, such as math, which helps them better appreciate God’s Creation, the priest said.
“Catholic schools are at the heart of the Church and are part in the evangelizing mission of the Church. It’s hard to imagine new energy in the New Evangelization without Catholic schools. They lead to more robust participation in parishes and enrollment in Catholic schools,” said Father Nuzzi. “Catholic education forms young people in the faith, builds an evangelizing culture to spread the Gospel and builds a strong civic community.”
While Catholic schools face many challenges, Catholic education, Father Nuzzi said, has notched some impressive successes. They maintain high academic standards. They promote lasting religious formation, which leads to more vocations, Mass attendance, parish involvement and care for the poor. They also help build better communities by forming students who are more likely to cultivate stable families and volunteer, he said.
Despite all the difficulties, supporters of Catholic education should keep in mind some more reason to hope. The great influx of Hispanics into the U.S. has increased the population of Catholics, including that of available children to attend Catholic schools. Also, one in six Catholic children attends Catholic school — numbers that have remained stable in recent years, Nuzzi said.
Supporters can strengthen the future of Catholic education by taking pro-active, positive actions. They include: attracting more benefactors and philanthropists; creating new governance models; mobilizing advocates for parental choice; offering more faith formation for teachers, principals and staff; and leveraging the schools’ economies of scale, such as cooperative purchasing, said Father Nuzzi.
Pentagrast shared the results of a demographic study of the school-age children in the diocese that collected data from Catholic schools, religious education programs and other sources. Next year, Meitler will submit to the diocese conclusions and long-range recommendations about where the deepest pockets of available school-age children exist in the diocese and where to place Catholic schools in the future, Brother William said.
“We must keep growing. In order to have a plan [for growth], you need a vision,” Brother Dygert said.
The diocese convened the meeting of all priests — which included Father Stanley Barron, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Flanders and diocesan Vicar for Education — to help build Catholic education in the diocese by “informing the clergy about the value of Catholic schools in the 21st century,” Brother William said.
“We need to show the Catholic community — clergy, as well as the faithful — data and information that shows that Catholic education is seminal in the life of the Church,” Brother William said. “Catholic schools pass on the Catholic faith and worldview. We have the audience [of Catholic-school students], the depth of that audience over time and the catechesis of the parents. But we have to be intentional [about promoting and growing Catholic education in the diocese],” he said.
By MICHAEL WOJCIK