SAUK CITY, Wis. — When parents enroll their children at St. Aloysius, a pre-K-through-fifth-grade Catholic school in Sauk City, Wis., they know that Catholic priests will be an integral and highly visible part of their children’s school days.
Five priests, all of whom have parish duties elsewhere, serve on the staff at St. Aloysius.
St. Aloysius mother Jenny Bellinder, who will have four children attending the school this fall, values having the priests as religious instructors. But she’s also pleased that one of the priests is a math teacher. This sends the right message about the breadth of the Church’s interests, according to Bellinder. “Our kids understand that sometimes priests study science,” Bellinder said.
“For St. Aloysius kids,” she added, “a priest is not just somebody who shows up on Sunday. Our priests walk around the school, and they know us and our families and can minister to us. We’re in their prayers, and they’re in our prayers.”
Father Peter Stravinskas, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation, and a staunch advocate of having more priests involved in Catholic education, would call this the “theology of presence.” And he believes there should be more of it.
“Just the very fact that priests are in the building makes a difference,” said Father Stravinskas. “This doesn’t mean that every priest has to be a classroom teacher. What matters is that priests are present to students, in the halls, in the cafeteria and at sports and social events.”
To promote the idea that there should be more priests present in Catholic elementary and secondary education, Father Stravinskas is hosting a seminar for Catholic clergy and seminarians on “The Role of the Priest in Today’s Catholic School,” Aug. 18-19, at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, N.Y. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, a member of the Catholic Education Foundation board, has called the seminar “a most needed initiative.”
The seminar will include sessions on conciliar and papal documents about Catholic education, the history of Catholic education in the United States and “the priest as the public-relations man of the school.” Father Stravinskas said that, while not all priests are born educators, all have a responsibility to promote Catholic education, the subject of the
“public relations” segment of the program.
“Parish priests need to do more than put a note in the bulletin that the school is having a registration drive,” said Father Stravinskas.
According to Father Stravinskas, the mere presence of priests presents pastoral opportunities, including offering students more opportunities to go to confession.
Father Mark Cyza, principal of Lourdes Central Catholic High School in Nebraska City, Neb., and pastor of St. Benedict Church, concurs. “Sometimes after lunch kids say to me, ‘Father, can I come talk?’ Sometimes it is talk and sometimes it is confession,” Father Czya said. “Having a priest present helps young people become more comfortable with the sacraments.”
While Father Stravinskas said that priests were much more visible in schools until around the 1970s, Timothy Walch, author of Parish School: American Catholic Parochial Education From Colonial Times to the Present, said that it is difficult to generalize on the role of priests in Catholic schools. However, he said that in much of Catholic education history in the U.S., the pastor of a church with a school invited nuns to staff the school; it was often the nuns who were seen in the day-to-day operations of the schools. Priests who taught in schools tended to be religious-order priests.
“Priests were always involved in Catholic education, but it wasn’t necessarily rolling up their sleeves and teaching. It would be very unusual for priests to have a daily role in K through eighth grade,” he said.
Father Stravinskas disagrees. “For nine years of grammar school, we had a priest assigned to teach religion at least once a week and priests omnipresent throughout the day,” he remembered. “For my four years of high school, three of my full-time religion teachers were priests. All of them were diocesan clergy, not religious. And my experience was normative, not atypical.”
Walch said that more involvement of priests in the schools today would be “lauded by people,” but that it would place more demands on priests who already have parish assignments.
Supporters of placing more priests in elementary and secondary education say that this is a self-solving problem: The visibility of priests often leads to more vocations.
“We’ve been very blessed with plentiful vocations for a diocese of our size,” said Sister Colette Bruskewitz, assistant superintendent of education for the Diocese of Lincoln in Nebraska. Sister Colette attributes the diocese’s good record with vocations in part to a strong emphasis on having priests in the schools, either as teachers or administrators, calling such involvement “a great encourager of vocations.”
Sister Collette said that in Lincoln “almost all our young priests do teach” in the Catholic-school system. While in seminary, they visit diocesan schools. Lincoln priests also obtain state education certification. Like Father Cyza, also a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln, they also have parish assignments.
“The priests have advanced degrees in theology. Who better to answer the questions of students?” Sister Colette said.
There is another benefit: “The priests learn to be pastoral by working in schools. What is really interesting is that so many of our students invite priests from high school to be the celebrant at their weddings later when they get married,” Sister Colette said.
Although Father Thomas Pastorius, administrator of Epiphany of Our Lord parish in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, is no longer an educator, he has a long history of instructing children in Catholic schools, and he believes that a priest can bring to the school setting something nobody else can. “The first thing kids get from having priests available at schools is the image of a caring God,” said Father Pastorius. “In many ways, the priest represents God as nobody else does. If the priest shows concern about their education and what is going on in their lives, they assume that God cares too.”
“What I tried to do is give young people a positive experience with the faith,” he said.
As an instructor of younger students, Father Pastorius developed a popular Bingo-like game he called “O, Mary,” where the answers to questions were various appearances of Mary. When a student got the name of the apparition right, Father Pastorius would ask, “Anybody know to whom she appeared?”
“Priests who invest themselves in the school make the sacraments more central,” he added.
‘A Great Experience’
Daniela Saldana, principal of St. Aloysius in Sauk City, said that because of the five priests who are on staff, “Our children are not afraid to go to Confession and they see it as a normal thing.”
There seems to be a lot of current interest beyond Sauk City about how priests can serve in Catholic schools.
“At present, we have about 15 dioceses sending priests to our seminar, even though it is occurring in the last days of summer vacation,” said Father Stravinskas. “I think this speaks volumes about how important bishops and priests consider this effort.”
For her part, principal Saldana knows the importance firsthand: “Our priests dress as priests and that is a public testimony and you can see how respectful the kids are. It’s a great experience for children to see men who have given their lives to God and are happy, normal people.”
Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.
For more information on the seminar on the role of priests:
Contact Father Peter Stravinskas:
Phone: (732) 914-1222