By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

As a first fruit of his Oct. 19 pastoral letter, “Called to Conversion and Holiness,” which called for a strategic plan for the Archdiocese in the 21st century, Cardinal Justin Rigali announced the membership of a newly formed Blue Ribbon Commission on Catholic Education at a Dec. 5 press conference.

The commission will examine all aspects of archdiocesan Catholic education – elementary and secondary schools, schools of special education and parish religious education programs.{{more}}

The commission, which will be chaired by Jack Quindlen, a former senior vice president and chief financial officer of the DuPont Company and a former chairman of the archdiocesan School Board, includes 17 mostly lay members with a broad background in business, civic and educational fields.
In his opening remarks the Cardinal called attention to the 15 million students who have received academic and faith formation rooted in Gospel values since the foundation of the Catholic school system.

“As you know,” the Cardinal said, “archdiocesan schools face challenges – changing demographics, lower enrollments in some schools and the continued struggle to keep Catholic education affordable for the many families who wish to make this investment in their children’s future.”

The commission members, he said, “are well-respected leaders who are committed to Catholic education and have generously agreed to contribute their time, talent, energy, creativity and knowledge to develop a strategic plan to assure the sustainability of Catholic education in the Archdiocese.”

The Cardinal took note that this action will be taking place in 2011, the 200th anniversary of the birth of St. John Neumann, who first organized Catholic schools at a diocesan level.

The commission will hold its first meeting as a body on Jan. 5, according to Quindlen, and following Mass celebrated for them by Cardinal Rigali, will spend the rest of the day exchanging ideas and deciding how to fulfill the their mandate.

Cardinal Rigali has asked them to complete their deliberations by the fall, to which Quindlen added “if possible.”

“It will be a strategic look at Catholic education because of the changing demographics and religious population,” he said. “Everything about the schools has changed over the years. We just opened a new school in Royersford, but on the other hand there are schools that are struggling as parishes are closing. What kind of plan can we lay down for the next 10 to 20 years that will guide us; how are we going to do this?”

In answer to a question, Quindlen said, while most of the exact working of the commission will be decided after they meet, he would expect they would seek input from some parents, teachers and others interested in Catholic education.

During its deliberations, the commission will work closely with the archdiocesan Office for Catholic Education, according to Auxiliary Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, who oversees Catholic education in the Archdiocese.

“We want to incorporate all the good work that the Office for Catholic Education does, and many members of the Office for Catholic Education are going to be staff to the commission,” he said. “We want to build on the history that we have, but we also want to have an objective look at what we are doing and how we are going to do it, and hopefully between both perspectives we are going to come up with a very good strategic plan.”

“We have been restructuring piecemeal; this is an effort to put forth a global plan,” he said.

Given rising costs and other factors which have led to a dramatic decline in the number of students in the Catholic schools of the Archdiocese, is there cause for optimism as the commission begins its work?

“I’m very optimistic,” Cardinal Rigali said. “Fifteen million students later we think this is of tremendous importance. It is related with the mission of the Church, it is related with the good of the community, it is related with the advancement of children.”

The Cardinal took note of “all these great people who are coming together today are coming with the conviction that they are going to be able to do something together to reinforce the mission.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.

Blue Ribbon Commission members

Jack Quindlen, chairman

Thomas J. Colligan

Charles P. Connolly Jr.

Gerald Davis

Msgr. Edward Deliman

Eleanor M. Dezzi

Sister John Evelyn DiTrolio, I.H.M.

Sister Patricia Fadden, I.H.M.

Frank A. Farnesi

H. Edward Hanway

Msgr. Daniel Kutys

Miguel León

Msgr. Joseph T. Marino

Sister Theresa Maugle, S.S.J.

Father Joseph M. O’Keefe, S.J.

Jerry Parsons

Sister Helen L. Wiegmann, S.S.J.