In third grade, my Catholic elementary school closed, and I moved to a neighboring school. There were only 11 students in my class; our first three grades were all in one room with three aisles. We kept moving an aisle closer to the window each year.
Even though it was very intimate, I think of that early formation as I raise the standard for Catholic schools. Eventually I went on to a Catholic high school and then seminary. As I look back, however, that first school became the standard.
This past Tuesday I celebrated Mass for Catholic Schools Week at Holy Family Church, and the theme was “Raising the Standards.” There is a clever play on words in that theme.
First, I think of raising a flag up a flag pole. In fact, I looked up the origin of the word “standard” and found its roots in the Old French word, estandart, meaning “a rallying place.” This year in the archdiocese, we will be “raising the standards” of Catholic schools as we rally every pastor, parish council, principal, and school board to reflect on the gift of Catholic elementary schools and to consider how we might improve our Catholic identity along with our models of governance and finance. We are raising the flag of Catholic schools as a rallying place for us to think together about how to ensure that the gift of Catholic school education is here for generations to come.
Louisville continues to be prominent nationally as a place for strong Catholic schools. Recent research shows that, even with declines over the last 10 years, we are third in the nation for the percentage of our children who are in Catholic schools. Our Catholic Elementary School Report, which is the springboard for the discussions that we will be holding among parishes and schools this year, reveals that even with the mergers and movements of Catholics throughout the 24 counties of Kentucky that comprise our archdiocese, a Catholic school is within 20 minutes of every student in Jefferson County and, surprising to me, within 35 minutes of almost all (95 %) of Catholic families in the 24 counties. This study has been widely distributed, and I recommend it for your review. (Go to www.archlou.org/schoolreport.)
Of course, the primary meaning of the Catholic Schools Week theme has to do with standards of excellence. We can proudly proclaim that our Catholic schools are centers of academic excellence and high moral standards. Do we need to keep improving? You bet we do. However, I do not know how we would continue to pass on the Catholic faith in an increasingly secular world if we did not have the gem of Catholic school education.
About two years ago, Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote an article in America entitled: “The Catholic Schools We Need.” He vividly depicted the effectiveness of Catholic schools by pointing to efforts by Nazi and Communist regimes of the past century to destroy them. I was reminded that sacrifice has been associated with Catholic schools from the beginning. It was part of my life and likely part of yours. Of all the challenges he mentions (and there are many), he says: “The most crippling reason, however, may rest in an enormous shift in the thinking of many American Catholics, namely, that the responsibility for Catholic schools belongs only to the parents of the students who attend them, not to the entire church.” In our age, we are tempted to reduce Catholic schools to purely a consumer choice.
When I think back to that classroom of 11 in Mahanoy City’s St. Mary’s Catholic School, I remember how we were formed by high standards. We received a great academic foundation in many different ways, as well as high moral standards, grounded in our Catholic faith. Most of all we have met the person of Jesus Christ in and through his Church, and, since knowing the love of Jesus brings out the best of us, this experience of Catholic school education helped to shape our character in profound ways, making us good for our families, our work, and our society.
Recently Father Bill Burks, pastor of St. Pius X parish and one of the pastors of the regional school, John Paul II Academy, was identified as the distinguished pastor of the year by the southern region of the National Catholic Educational Association. I visited St. Pius on Epiphany earlier this month to share the joy! Of course, all who know Father Burks share a high admiration for him, and I’m certainly among his admirers. His being named says volumes about Catholic schools and parish life in our Archdiocese. More than just a consumer choice, Catholic schools are at the core of the new evangelization in our Church and are vital to the future of a strong and just society.
Let us raise the standards! Support Catholic schools!