In September 2010, one of the great supporters of American Catholic education, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, issued a memorable call to action for our school leaders. It still has force today. In an article entitled “The Catholic Schools We Need” (America Magazine), he wrote: “It is time to recover our nerve and promote our schools for the 21st century. The current hospice mentality — watching our schools slowly die — must give way to a renewed confidence.”
That single line invites us all to take a harder look at our approach to Catholic education. Philadelphia is the diocese where St. John Neumann founded parochial Catholic schools, and the future of our Catholic schools depends on more than just the professional skills we have as leaders. It also and even more urgently depends on the spirit and mindset we bring to the people we lead.
For decades, Catholic dioceses have spent countless hours (and dollars) training our leaders in skills. One consultant showed us how to better manage enrollment. Another showed us how to better manage our finances. Another showed us what skills were key to being a successful leader.
These things are clearly important. But one of the basic needs we sometimes missed was that no one came along and taught us how to transform our thinking in a way that produced results. No one taught us how to move from an unstated but powerful “hospice mentality” to a credible growth mentality.
Catholic schools have been in crisis since the 1970s. We’ve done a decent job managing a frustrating decline. But we need to realize that our problems aren’t finally about skills; they’re about winning back the faith of our people with strong academic content and even stronger confidence in Jesus Christ.
There’s no “out of the box” solution to our predicament. We need educators with nimble, creative minds, in it for the long haul and unimpressed by all the reasons Catholic education “must” shrink. If we assume we’re in decline, then we’ll decline — guaranteed. If we go forward with a bit more audacity, then good things are possible. So that’s what we’re trying to do here in Philadelphia.
In my 2014 pastoral letter on Catholic education, Equipping Saints, I wrote: “Today we continue the great witness begun many decades ago by the fourth bishop of Philadelphia, St. John Neumann. His energy and vision encouraged parishes to open the first Catholic elementary schools, and his success became a model for Church-sponsored education in our country.”
John Neumann had no professional consultants. He had a modest bag of skills. But he had tireless energy, vision and confidence in God’s help — and that’s what we need to emulate. He was never stymied by what Catholics “couldn’t” do. He moved forward believing in what could be done and seeing what no one else could see.
It’s a busy time here as we celebrate our Catholic schools across the United States this week (January 31-February 6). As we work to move from hospice to hope, as we equip saints for life in this world and in the next, one thing is certain: This is a time to celebrate not just the great heritage of our Catholic schools – nostalgia is beautiful, but it’s no substitute for action – but also our schools’ vital mission for the future.
We need to shout out the great gift they are to our nation and to the whole Philadelphia region – because that’s what they are. And with God’s help and yours, that’s what they always will be.
Archbishop Chaput’s pastoral letter on Catholic education and parish faith formation can be found here.