Revisiting the U.S. Bishops' Statement:
Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium
Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium
Challenged by the present, while peering into the future, for some, might produce uncertainty and skepticism. Yet, in the United States, our Bishops, both past and present, look upon the future of Catholic Schools with a sense of hope and purpose.
Over the last 12 years, since the statement was promulgated, many in Catholic education, upon reading the statement, argued that the Bishops did not go far enough and/or that they missed an opportunity to say something new and dynamic. I’m not sure what my colleagues were hoping to hear, but clearly their expectations muted the voices of hope and purpose speaking in the statement. While peering into the third millennium, the Bishops, in their statement, offered multiple expressions of hope and purpose rooted in the current status and success of Catholic schools. And yet, while observing the horizon to which we are moving, the Bishops push the boundaries of Catholic schools and compel those of us in leadership to traverse unexplored terrain. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why, some say, the Bishops didn’t go far enough—because rather than move into unfamiliar territory on their own they want to be carried there on the shoulders of the Bishops or by some Diocesan program. It’s clear after 12 years that fear and reluctance prevented some in Catholic school leadership to own a part of the journey into the third millennium because of challenges to the current status quo. And for this, I will not criticize the Bishops.
Now, for the scope of this reflection, I will yield to others more knowledgeable to weigh the merits of the Bishops recommendations or to debate the statements effecting finance, personnel and public advocacy. Rather I am going to focus on the hope & purpose of the statement by highlighting three significant observations made by the Bishops and how these observations intimately challenge those of us entrusted with Catholic school leadership. The areas to be discussed: 1) the Bishops’ characterization of the young; 2) the Bishop’s awareness of the “new immigrant;” and 3) the Bishops’ explicit inclusion of special need students within our school.
I found the Bishops’ characterization of young people as the “source of energy and leadership in our Church and our nation” (RCCESS n.9) as boldly hopeful and refreshingly filled with purpose.
In previous documents, young people are seen as hearts and minds to form, the good Christian and citizen to cultivate, the moral character to mold, the immigrant to assimilate, the innocent to protect from an evil society, and in more recent years a young person to shape into the future of the Church. Yet, in this statement the Bishops are taking their direction from Catholic Schools on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, to actually see those we educate, in our “schools for the human person”(Catholic Schools on the Threshold of the Third Millennium [CSTTM], n. 9), as our hopeful source of energy with the purpose of being our future leaders.
Imagine, that sitting in your class, or present among your student body is the young man or woman who will be called upon to serve the Church or the nation in the years ahead. Here, the Bishops actually shift our thinking about the effect of Catholic education from something that happens to a young person which may impact his or her generic future, to something that happens within a young person that will certainly impact, not only his or her future, but our future and the future of the Church.
The U.S. Bishops are saying something new, while building on their previous statements: In To Teach as Jesus Did, the Bishops remind us that the three interlocking dimensions of education are message, community and service. If all of these dimensions are alive within our current educational setting, than the Bishop’s are right to declare that young people of the third millennium will be a “source of energy and leadership in our Church” (RCCESS, n.9).
We, the one’s in Catholic School leadership, must see this hopeful energy in our young people, we must trust this energy in all its innovation and challenge, and we—not the bishops, must provide the environmental conduit for the energy to achieve its purposeful end in serving the Church and the nation.
Yet, let’s be cautious not to exclude, from this pool of future leaders, the poor in our midst. For, if our 200 hundred years of Catholic education highlight any fact, it is the numerous Who’s Who list of Catholic leaders who began their lives as the poor immigrant children.
That is why I believe, the Bishops flow from speaking about the young we serve in our schools as future leaders to their statements about our outreach to the poor. In doing this, the Bishops speak with hope by pointing out the tremendous effectiveness Catholic school’s have among the poor and disadvantaged, especially in poor inner-city neighborhoods and rural areas (RCCESS, n. 11). Throughout history the Catholic school responded to the need of the marginalized, beginning with our own experience as early settlers facing severe anti-Catholic sentiment. From there, our schools became refuge for the poor and displaced immigrants who turned to the Church for familiarity and solace. Our schools became the home where immigrant children grew, were educated, and assimilated into the fabric of American society.
The challenge the Bishops are embracing is an inevitable one, in 15 years the complexion, the language, and 50% of the Catholic population will be one of Hispanic /Latin origin. By including the impact of the new immigrant within their statement the Bishops are moving the dialogue forward for Catholic schools for they are reminding us as, well as themselves, of our original mission and our fundamental option for the poor.
In reminding us of our success and pointing us to the future with the new immigrant within the American Church, the Bishops give Catholic schools hope and purpose by speaking with confidence that we can succeed in our efforts with the needy. As a matter of fact, the Bishops are in complete agreement with what much of the research is stating as well. The Bishops might be surprised to know that on this issue of the disadvantaged, Andrew Greeley’s presentation at Catholic University of America, in May 1997, on Catholic Schools Research at the Crossroads confirms their optimism: “The success of Catholic schools is strongest among the disadvantaged students…the contribution of Catholic Schools to disadvantaged students does not vary with race – it is present in white and brown and black --perhaps because the Catholic schools were designed to serve poor immigrants. (Greeley, n.2 1997).
We should take courage in this, for in spite of the challenges brought on by educating the immigrant, research demonstrates we do so quite successfully. Just as in Economic Justice for All, where the Bishops encourage public education to improve in quality if the poor are to take their rightful place in the economic structures of society (Economic Justice For All, n.203). So, to here, in this document, the Bishops are challenging Catholic schools by peering into the third millennium and laying out the facts and thereby confronting us with a very powerful question: Will we see the new immigrants, welcome them into our schools, and trust that we have what it takes to educate them so they can take their rightful place as leaders within the Church and society? Only we possess the answer—not the Bishops.
Similar in spirit to the above discussion is the final challenge that I will discuss from the Bishops’ statement and that is their clear and intentional insertion that Catholic schools must “look for ways to include and serve better the needs of young people in our Church who have special educational and physical needs” (RCCESS, n.22).
Here the U.S. Bishops are fleshing out what the Congregation for Catholic Education highlighted in Catholic Schools on the Threshold of the Third Millennium. As you look at the last three sections of that document: Care for Learning Means Loving; Catholic School at the Service of Society; and Climate of the Educating Community—all three describe the nature (hope) and focus (purpose) of the Catholic school in its relationship with whom the school is serving.
These three sections touch upon our previous discussion regarding the disadvantaged as well as the “right of the families to see that their children receive the sort of education they wish for them” (Catholic Schools on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, n. 16). Implicit in the text, is what I believe the U.S. Bishops make explicit in their commentary when they intentionally identify children with learning needs. No school can justify the absence of Catholic families with children who have learning needs if these Catholic families desire a Catholic education.
Perhaps my interpretation is much bolder than the Bishops’ intention. Yet, by identifying this particular segment of the Catholic population, I believe the Bishops are urging the Catholic schools to recognize the presence of special need children and their families for they are going to encounter them as they move into the third millennium and they must be committed to serve them. As bold as this urging is by the Bishops, its purpose is filled with hope.
Greeley’s research, once again comes to our assistance by pointing out that when dealing with students that are disadvantaged and/or have needs, “those with academic, emotional, disciplinary, and familial, and who lack a home environment conducive to success” (Greeley, n.2, 1997) the research shows that Catholic schools are successful in educating them, “moreover the success of the Catholic schools increases as these problems pile up on students” (Greeley, n.2, 1997) because Catholic schools provide stronger community support, and give more personal attention to students than do the public schools (Greeley, n.2, 1997)
So, Bishops and those of us involved in Catholic school leadership should take comfort, even without all the money for special programs and/or personalized tutors, Catholic schools can still achieve greater results merely because of the nature of our schools and our commitment to the student. The real challenge for Catholic schools is not in our ability to serve Catholic families with children with special needs, but rather, in our desire to find within the school’s mission a place where these children can not only be served but can be authentically welcomed. This place must be found by us—not the Bishops
Challenged by the present, while peering into the future, for some, might produce uncertainty and skepticism. Characterizing the young, educating the new immigrant, and welcoming the child with learning needs, as seen in the light of the Bishops’ statement, now--12 years later, seems quite prophetic. Those in Catholic leadership, who have made strides in these areas, did so because they did not look over their shoulders at the Bishops with justified uncertainty and suspicious skepticism. In contrast, they chose to listen to the voice of the Bishops, both past and present, who called upon them to create the future of Catholic Schools with a sense of hope and purpose.
Only with a sense of a hope and purpose can authentic leadership surface. I am so grateful that our Saints and our Founders of Religious Congregations, so many of whom dedicated their life to Catholic education, did not look upon their future with uncertainty or skepticism. Many of them did not look over their shoulder to find validation in the mission, rather they trusted in the hand of providence, the inner dwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the evident need right in front of them to which their mission was responding. These internal gauges of hope and purpose catapulted these men and women into their future without fear. As Catholic educators can we look upon the Bishops’ statement as a challenge to move beyond our 20th Century comfort zone and into third millennium? Yes, as long as we are convinced that it is God’s work being done and that Divine Providence brings to us those we are to serve and then the means by which we are to serve them. Only with the conviction that it is God’s work being done with the assistance of Divine Providence can we as Catholic educators see the future of Catholic schools: a future, filled with hope and a mission filled with purpose.
Let me close by quoting notable statements from Bishops, both past and present who give real words to the meaning of Catholic education filled with hope and purpose.
“Knowing, therefore, that the principles instilled in the course of a Christian education, are generally preserved through life, and that a young man according to his way, even when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Bishop John Carroll, Pastoral Letter of 1792, n. 3).
“The three great educational agencies are the home, the Church, and the school. These mold men and shape society” (Archbishop James Gibbons, Pastoral Letter of 1884, n. 32).
“The future of humanity lies in the hands of those (educators) who are strong enough to provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping” (To Teach as Jesus Did, n. 82).
“Young people of the third millennium must be a source of energy and leadership in our Church and our nation. Therefore, we must provide young people with a…sound program of education and faith formation. . .” (RCCESS, n.9)
Carroll, Bishop John. (1792). Pastoral Letter.
Congregation for Catholic Education. (1997). The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium.
Gibbons, Archbishop James. (1884). Pastoral Letter issued by the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore.
Greeley, Andrew. (1997). Catholic School Research at the Crossroads. Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.
National Conference of Catholic Bishops. (1986). Economic Justice for All, Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.
National Conference of Catholic Bishops. (1977). To Teach as Jesus Did: A Pastoral Message on Catholic Education.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (2005). Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium.