January 27, 2006

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Supporting our Catholic schools continues a rich tradition

At our spring 2005 meeting, the bishops of the United States found it timely to issue a statement titled “Renewing our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium.”

We are committed to continuing a longstanding tradition. We Catholics of the United States inherited the rich tradition of building and maintaining schools from our immigrant ancestors. In a milieu that was less than friendly to the Catholic Church and its faith in the early days of our nation, our forbearers had to both nurture and protect the faith for their descendents.

Founding what would truly become a monumental school system was one of their initiatives. Excellence in education and religious formation became a hallmark of our schools, thanks largely to dedicated religious women and men who embraced our educational mission with zeal and at great sacrifice.

In 1999, the late Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic exhortation, The Church in America, said Catholic schools play a vital role in the evangelizing mission of the Church. They are “the privileged environment in which Christian education is carried out … Catholic schools are at once places of evangelization, of complete formation, of inculturation, of apprenticeship in a lively dialogue between young people of different religions and social backgrounds” (Catholic Schools on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, #11).

Our Catholic schools play a vital role in the development of a spiritual and moral culture in our country for our children and future generations.

In a reflection on “The Church That John Paul II Left Behind” (chapter two of God’s Choice) among other issues, author George Weigel describes the malaise in Europe. He notes that the late Holy Father tried to offer a positive program for Europe’s cultural revival. The pope suggested that Europe’s greatest need was not for a common currency or a new constitution but for hope: “The most urgent matter Europe faces, in both East and West, is a growing need for hope, a hope that will enable us to give meaning to life and history . . .” (The Church in Europe).

In describing how Europe’s lost hope expresses itself, the pope said it was “in a kind of practical agnosticism and religious indifference whereby many Europeans give the impression of living without spiritual roots . . . somewhat like heirs who have squandered a patrimony … .” in a “fear of the future,” in “the inner emptiness that grips many people,” in a “selfishness that closes individuals and groups in upon themselves” and, of course, “in the diminished number of births.”

Weigel comments that Europe is also suffering from self-inflicted historical amnesia in which Christianity’s contributions to the formation of Europe’s civilization are being denied (cf., Weigel’s most recent work, God’s Choice, p. 56).

We do well to reflect on the malaise that afflicts Europe because our country is no less immune to the impact of the negative effects of secular materialism. Amnesia about the necessary influence of Christian spirituality and morality leads to a loss of hope because it divests culture of its authentic meaning.

As our bishops’ statement says: “Our young people are the Church of today and tomorrow. It is imperative that we provide them with schools ready to address their spiritual, moral, and academic needs. Our challenge today is to provide schools close to where our Catholic people live. In areas where there currently are no Catholic schools, we should open schools that have a mission to evangelize. . . . Wherever possible, Catholic schools should remain available and accessible in all areas of a diocese for children who are from poor and middle-class families who face major economic challenges.

“In addition, Catholic schools should be available to students who are not Catholic and who wish to attend them. This has been a proud part of the history of Catholic schools in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“We must continue this outreach in the new millennium. We must also serve the increasing Hispanic/Latino population which makes up 39 percent of our current Catholic community. Hispanics/Latinos make up 41 percent of Catholics under the age of 30 and 44 percent of Catholics under the age of 10.”

The bishops’ statement proposes an enormous challenge! Maintaining our Catholic schools in any environment is hard work. The need for resources both to maintain and enhance school facilities, the need to provide reasonable salaries for teachers and administrators, the need to provide tuition assistance for the economically challenged—all of these needs are formidable.

Providing for schools in some of our rural communities and in center-city Indianapolis is even more difficult. With the generous assistance of those who enjoy greater resources, we will continue to do our best. It is a part of our inherited mission as Catholics in the United States. Our hard work promises a future full of hope for our children. †


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