Catholic Schools Have the Holy Spirit Breathed Into Them Again

“Every Catholic school is a dwelling place for God in the midst of His people.” —Fr. Peter Stravinskas

Holy Innocents Church in New York City
Holy Innocents Church in New York City (photo: Photo: Jim Henderson, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

On September 26, 2017, the Catholic Education Foundation held its award ceremony at the Church of the Holy Innocents. A reception followed at Arno's Restaurant in Midtown Manhattan.

The five honorees for the evening ceremony were:

  • Rev. Msgr. Sabato Pilato, priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who served as high school principle and then superintendent of secondary schools for the Archdiocese
  • Atonement Academy in San Antonio, the first Catholic school of what is now the Ordinate of the Chair of St. Peter (jurisdiction for Anglicans/Episcopalians converts to the Church.)
  • Grand Traverse Area Catholic schools in Michigan, which has experienced such a growth that a major capital campaign is underway to expand facilities
  • The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, whose sole apostolate continues to be the staffing of Catholic schools
  • Dr. William Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College in Charlotte, North Carolina, for providing an appropriate environment in higher education for graduates of Catholic elementary and secondary levels

I spoke with Fr. Peter Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D, executive director of the CEF and principle presider at the Mass celebrating the evening award ceremony.

“Catholic Education in the U.S. is most challenged by the loss of religiosity among our society, not only among Catholics, but among Christians. The lack of religiosity in our country, coupled with the promulgation of social relativistic thought in our homes, government, literature, movies, and day to day living, creates and enormous risk to Catholic education.”

“Our Catholic schools,” explained Fr. Stravinska, “must be caretakers of the Truth, beauty, and goodness of the Church in a way that allows for the joy of the Gospel to be palpable to all who have contact with our schools. Only when our Catholic schools are seen with Christ's joy, can we begin to bring children and teens to the Truth's that run in dirt contradiction to today's social culture.”

Fr. Stravinskas commented on the current political and sociological trends that might affect Catholics education saying, “Today's sociological trends often run in the face of respect for the person, and respect for foundational bedrocks, such as the primacy of the family. The government has begun to play a scary role with its decisions that interfere with Americans right's to practice their religion freely. The only positive in the trends is in the hope that their radical direction may cause a radical whiplash effect, where in American Catholics are forced to move away from compliance and apathy, and move towards a presence of activism for all that is holy.”

Ever the optimist about Catholic education, Fr. Stravinska offered a glimmer of hope for our ailing system―the basis of our Faith.

“Hope is found in the person of Jesus Christ. Catholic schools, whose foundation is built on the teachings of the Church and Jesus Christ, who openly express their love for Him, and all that He represents give can be very hopeful and life-giving. And, when two or more are gathered in His name...we must have hope!”

“The value of Catholic education is the same for both Catholics and non-Catholics. As Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton said, ‘we educate children because we are Catholic, not because they are Catholic.’ The schools exist to form hearts, inform minds, and transform lives through the teachings of the Gospels and the Catholic Church. Catholic schools cannot exist for duplicitous reasons, which would leave them serving two masters. There is only one Savior, and Catholic schools faithfulness to Him and His teachings are for all children, without distinction.”

Charles Taylor, Former Superintendent for the Diocese of Gaylord 2008-2014 and current Director of Bands and Performing Arts for the Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools was one of this evening’s recipients of the awards presented by the CEF, spoke about the Catholic Education Foundation’s accomplishments, values and plans for the future:

“I was alerted to the good works of the CEF when I was Superintendent of Catholic Schools in Gaylord Michigan,” explained Taylor. “After researching the foundation I was impressed with the assistance to Catholic Schools through their programs for both the formation and assessment of teachers. The Catholic School Identity Assessment offered an objective tool that provides data on Catholic Identity that can be tracked over time. After speaking with Fr. Stravinskas I was so impressed with the tool that I mandated that all of the Diocesan High Schools take the assessment. I also provided complete funding through my diocesan budget. Each of the schools found great value in the assessment process. Although I left my position as superintendent 4 years ago to return to the classroom, had I stayed it would have been my intention to have each of my remaining elementary and middle schools go through the CSIA process.”

“This evening’s award ceremony,” said Taylor, “serves to offer examples of success that serve as both model and inspiration to those students and schools. I have always found them to provide great consolation. Celebrate what is well and good and set about identifying and fixing what is broken or dysfunctional.”

Taylor also spoke about the challenges facing Catholic education in the States.

“My sense is there is more a crises of faith than problems with Catholic education. Never have the differences between a government and faith-based education been more profound. Catholic Schools can continue to attract families with an education that pursues both Faith and Reason.”

“Correctly done,” continued Taylor, “Catholic education will always offer value for those seeking an education of the whole person.” This will bring out, he explained, “a positive outcome for Catholic education.”

“A Catholic education is valuable,” stressed Taylor, “because it offers Catholics invaluable assistance from the Church Universal to the Domestic Church in the formation the future Church. The Church’s truth is also available to the non-Catholic students in our schools. The opportunity to present the Truth to them is a profound advantage.”

Taylor reminisced about his own Catholic education saying, “I went to Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Virginia, Diocese of Arlington, from 1978-82 and was blessed to have 20 OSFS priests on the faculty. St. Francis De Sales has had major impact on my own spiritual formation.”

Taylor discussed the major challenges facing Catholic education in the States specifically biggest problem we have in the U.S. is convincing parents of the need to re-arrange their priorities.

“All too often we hear that Catholic school tuition is out of the reach of middle-income families,” explained Taylor. “On average, elementary school tuition is between $4,500 and $5,000. You can't hire a baby-sitter for that. Ironically, many of those same parents don't give a thought to spending that much and more for dance lessons or soccer league memberships. Furthermore, priests and bishops need to do a much better job of reminding parents that subjecting their children to the godless government schools is endangering their children's souls.”

Taylor called the government monopoly on education “wrongheaded and harmful.”

“Education vouchers are the most viable route as they emphasize that parents are the primary educators of their children and have little to no potential for governmental intrusion into the life of a school.”

In terms of Catholic education, Taylor keeps in mind the example of the Diocese of Wichita, where a K-12 education is totally free.

“As the Code of Canon Law reminds us, the Catholic education of our children is the responsibility of the entire Catholic community, and not simply that of parents who use our schools or of a parish that happens to have a school on its property,” he explained.

He spoke about the value of a Catholic education claiming it is a “holistic education. Pope Pius XI, in his 1925 encyclical, noted the fundamental flaw in what he referred to as "so-called neutral schools" in which religion was absent. In a Catholic school, religion is not merely a half-hour class a day; rather, it permeates the curriculum, so that it can be discussed whenever and wherever it naturally surfaces: in history, science, literature, art, music.

Fr. Stravinskas pointed out that Darius, the Persian king, issued a decree which not only permitted the re-construction of the Temple of Jerusalem but, in fact, allotted funding from the royal treasury for the project by way of explaining the appropriateness of accepting federal and start funding in support of Catholic schools especially in terms of tax credits―a common hot topic in discussion of American and Canadian Catholic schools.

“Apparently, the Persian kings saw something unique in the Jewish exiles and attributed it to their God.”

Fr. Stravinskas likened the rebuilding of God’s Temple to the Divine admonition to St. Francis of Assisi many centuries later.

“Francis, rebuild my Church, which is in ruins!” Still very much fixed on the physical and material, he took up the mission of rebuilding that little church. Gradually, it dawned on Francis that the real work which the Lord was requiring of him was something far more vast and far more important: the rebuilding of that Church, which is the Body of Christ.”

Fr. Stravinskas was asked about the future of Catholic education in America. His response offered an important lesson from the past.

“The first archbishop of New York, John J. Hughes, understood this very well when he declared, without fear of contradiction, “The days have come. . . in which the school is more necessary than the church.” The bishops of our nation understood this very well when, in plenary council in 1884, they mandated the establishment of a Catholic school in every parish, with the goal of having every Catholic child in a Catholic school. We never achieved that goal completely, but we did come close – until we lost our nerve and sense of direction.”

This ceremony honored a priest, a community of Sisters, a layman, and two schools where faculty and administration have done an “exemplary job of leading young believers in the path of the Gospel, lest we spend another half-century in exile from a fully Catholic life,” explained Fr. Stravinskas.  

In his homily, Fr. Stravinskas poignantly compared Catholic schools to our churches.

“A temple is a house of God and a place of sacrifice. In point of fact, every Catholic school is a dwelling place for God in the midst of His people, and it is where sacrifice is taught and practiced. How does that happen? We find the formula beautifully given in today’s short but powerful passage from the Gospel of St. Luke: the youngsters our teachers encounter day in and day out are taught Our Lord’s criteria for belonging to His family, namely, by hearing His word and acting on it. Some commentators have concluded that, with these words, Christ is distancing Himself from His holy Mother. On the contrary, twice before today’s episode, Luke has informed us that Our Lady is not only the biological Mother of the Lord but is one who “ponders” God’s Word and, as we know from the witness of her life, and also acts on that Word.”

Fr. Stravinskas likened the Blessed Virgin Mary to the mission of Catholic education when he invoked her appellation of Sedes Sapientiae, or “Seat of Wisdom”―the Mother upon whose lap Wisdom Incarnate (the Logos) rests and from where she presents Him to the world.