One of the most treasured gifts I have received during my life are the years of education that took place in Catholic schools. Of all my years of formal education, 10 years were in Catholic schools and 10 were in state run, or public schools.
I greatly appreciate the role Catholic school education had in helping me discern my vocation and in preparing me for service to the Church. It built upon the foundation of faith that my parents handed on to me through their devotion and example.
I attended Catholic grade school in the midst of the baby boom. We were taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph who received minimal salaries. Tuition was low — a welcome accommodation for our family of nine children. My school had two classes of 40 students each in every grade. That was not uncommon for Catholic school classrooms at that time; other Catholic schools would have as many as 60 students taught by one religious who worked without an aide.
Our education centered upon the “four R’s” — reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and religion. The last of these permeated every subject we were taught. We attended a no-frills school. There was no science lab, no gym and no lunchroom — we ate at our desks. Our playground was the church parking lot on which we played tag or dodgeball.
What I experienced was the story for generations of Catholics who attended Catholic schools. Today, the narrative is different. Due to a number of factors that converged, i.e., fewer religious sisters and brothers teaching necessitating the hiring of full-time lay teachers, couples having fewer children, changing demographics, specialized services requiring smaller class sizes, increased competition from public schools with newer infrastructure and a wider range of educational services, the economic model for Catholic schools throughout the country changed.
While the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 required every parish to have a school, that expectation could no longer be realized.
During the last 50 years, that economic reality has led to the development of innovative initiatives and models for maintaining the financial viability for Catholic schools. Among them are building endowments for scholarships, establishing regional schools and seeking participation from the civic realm in the form of tax credits and voucher programs.
Large-scale fundraising is a necessity for our schools. Some schools, like Benedictine and St. Gertrude in Richmond, are cooperating in new models of education to add economies of scale yet retain their distinct history and educational model.
We have seen the introduction of work-study programs like the one at Cristo Rey Richmond High School, where five students from economically challenged families share a job with a local business. This employment income covers a significant portion of the cost of the education for them.
Whether your parish has a school or not, Catholic school education is everyone’s responsibility. Our diocesan parishes share in that common responsibility because of the significant way our schools can prepare people for a life of faith. That is why a portion of the assessment is dedicated to support scholarships and Catholic schools.
Even those who are not living in proximity to a Catholic school can support it through their prayers, financial contributions and advocacy. For instance, there is an urgent need to keep Virginia’s Education Improvement Scholarships Tax Credits (EISTC) in place. These tax credits allow more children from middle income families to access scholarship money so that their families do not have to bear the full tuition costs.
The value of Catholic education to our Church must also be seen in light of the stewardship that we, as diocese and parishes, must practice. The blunt reality is that without endowments and other sources of financial support beyond tuition, if they cannot sustain themselves through tuition, fundraising efforts, adequate enrollment and other local support, schools will close.
While Catholic school education was integral in my faith formation, the parish religious education program during my high school years was a key aspect of my vocation to the priesthood. I have great affection for the laity who volunteered countless hours to handing on the faith, especially through our diocesan ECHO (Encountering Christ in Others) high school retreat program.
Our parish religious education programs are a different but just as important model for handing on the faith to our children and young adults who are educated in public schools. That model involves a direct link to parish life and the sacraments, relying heavily upon parents and volunteer catechists to hand on the faith by word and example.
Stewardship is a foundation block in every model of Catholic education — school or religious education program. With the former, stewardship requires a large financial commitment if the schools are going to survive and, more importantly, thrive. With the latter, volunteers and parishioner involvement in parish catechetical programs are imperative.
Our Catholic mission remains: We must hand on the faith to our children with the model that is effective and financially sustainable. Please continue to pray for all who are involved in that transmission of our faith.