The Church in Philadelphia has the benefit of two excellent monthly publications in The Catholic Standard and Times and Phaith magazine. But life happens on a daily basis. A bishop needs to speak with his people much more frequently than once a month. So beginning today, I’ll be writing this weekly web column as a means of talking about the life we share as a Church in a more direct, immediate way.

We have a great many challenges ahead of us in 2012 – legal, financial, and above all, pastoral.  The real problems in a Christian community are never finally material. The resource and organizational issues always come from some deeper spiritual problem: a lack of zeal, a lukewarm faith, an eagerness to fit in, a hunger for influence and a comfortable life.

These shadows live in all of us to one degree or another, including those of us in ministry. The more we let them draw us away from loving Jesus Christ and doing the work of discipleship, the weaker and more dishonest our common life as believers becomes. The “habit” of being Catholic is not enough. It’s not even close to enough. There needs to be a fire for being Catholic in our hearts.

One of my favorite stories about my early predecessor in Philadelphia, Bishop John Neumann, is that he owned a single worn out pair of boots that he used for his entire adult life as a priest. He was famously frugal with himself, and famously generous in his love for others. That’s the spirit we need to recover.

Nothing great is ever accomplished without suffering. Building or rebuilding anything of value always takes effort. This beautiful Church of Philadelphia – her thousands of faithful laypeople; her hundreds of good priests, deacons and religious; her extraordinary legacy of Christian witness – now needs all of our energy and all of our devotion to make her whole again. She is worth every sacrifice we make to renew her.

Today, January 5, is St. John Neumann’s feast day. We rightly remember him as one of the founders of Catholic education in the United States. He built scores of schools for thousands of students during his years as Philadelphia’s bishop. He set an example for the entire country.  But his dedication to Catholic schools was a subset of his real and greater vocation:  He was a missionary first.

For Neumann, schools were not an end in themselves. They were a means to an end. And that end was the building up of the Church, the salvation of souls, the ennobling of young minds and the conversion of American culture. More than 150 years later, the conditions we face in Philadelphia are very different. In some ways our situation is much more difficult. Nonetheless, the goal of Catholic education remains the same.

Tomorrow, January 6, I will receive the final report of an impressive Blue Ribbon Commission that has spent the past year reviewing and re-imagining Catholic education in the Archdiocese.  News media have already suggested that dozens of poorly attended, financially troubled Catholic schools will be asked to combine or close; but a careful pruning of our educational system for the health of the larger mission is clearly necessary. Public school systems, both locally and nationally, have had to face the same tough decisions. But the substance of the Commission report will be much more comprehensive and much more positive than the closing of specific schools. It will create the foundation for a new and stronger future for Catholic education in the Archdiocese.

I’m therefore grateful to Cardinal Justin Rigali who began this important process; to Bishop Michael Fitzgerald and the Office of Catholic Education; and especially to Chairman Jack Quindlen and members of the Blue Ribbon Commission for having the courage to see this demanding project through to its conclusion.

John Neumann was a missionary first. Everything else was second. You and I are called to exactly the same vocation. Let’s begin that work today. Difficulties can be overcome. Problems can be solved. We can renew our Church and make Catholic education grow and thrive again. But we need two things to do it – the grace of God, and hearts truly on fire for Jesus Christ. The rest will follow.