CNS PHOTO | GREGORY SHEMITZ
A young student receives Communion during a school Mass underlining the importance of promoting Catholic identity in Catholic high schools and elementary schools.
WASHINGTON – Promoting Catholic identity in Catholic high schools and elementary schools is necessary for their survival, according to speakers at a conference for Catholic school leaders.
Bishop David O'Connell of Trenton, N.J., and former president of The Catholic University of America, stressed that the mission of Catholic schools is to "proclaim the good news" and provide a "place to encounter God." This has not changed, he said, "since Jesus told his disciples to go and teach all nations."
The bishop stressed that the mission or Catholic identity of Catholic schools is "not a mere add on" but something fundamental to their existence and sets them apart from other schools.
If Catholic schools aren't inspiring, engaging and changing lives, he said, they are "simply schools, that's all." Instead, they need to be places of learning that are "willing to educate and transmit faith in ways that are unambiguous."
O'Connell noted that this kind of dedication isn't just for religion classes either, but something that needs to take place throughout the curriculum, on the playground, and in faculty and parent meetings.
Teachers and administrators set this tone, he said. Administrators should hire teachers who believe in the school's mission and follow up with faith formation training programs and support to these teachers. Bishops should be visiting the schools in their dioceses to make sure the "faith-oriented needs are met," O'Connell said.
Priests and other Catholic leaders need to "be shameless about promoting Catholic education," said the bishop.
The conference – Catholic Identity of Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools – was held at The Catholic University of America.
The speakers spoke on the challenges currently facing Catholic schools in the U.S., such as dwindling enrollments, rising expenses, and closures or threats to close. But they also noted the diocesan superintendents, college professors, high school principals and education researchers attending the conference are also fully aware that Catholic schools have something unique to offer students that extends far beyond quality academics or even a faith-based education.
University leaders who spoke said they saw the link between the work of Catholic higher education and Catholic elementary and secondary schools.
There is a "kinship between our enterprises," said John Garvey, president of Catholic University.
All Catholic schools not only share the same mission but face the same challenges including the decline in the number of religious and the rising influence of secular trends, Garvey said.
Vincentian Father Donald Harrington, president of St. John's University in Queen's, N.Y., noted that "for too long there has been a great divide between Catholic higher education and elementary and secondary schools."
"Great things will happen" when these groups cooperate especially since they "share the sacred trust of educating young people," Harrington said.
To this end, Catholic colleges are conducting studies on Catholic education, providing student mentors at Catholic schools and offering teacher training and leadership programs for Catholic school teachers.
Harrington noted that Catholic college leaders have thought long and hard about Catholic identity through their work in implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae, an apostolic constitution issued by Pope John Paul II that identifies the mission of Catholic higher education.
Catholic colleges, he said, should share their resources with their younger counterparts, "not out of charity but from the belief that this is important" and to "do all we can to support and continue Catholic education."