August 26, 2004
Birthdays are great. They make us stop and celebrate the lives of those we love. But not everyone knows their birthday. I have met people from other countries who aren’t exactly sure of the date of their birth. In the past, babies were born at home. And in some places in Europe, time elapsed before the birth was registered in the town hall; and not always correctly. Names were given and names were changed before the ink hit the paper. When my grandparents died, we learned that the names they were using all their life weren’t their given names after all. But we loved them just the same.
We are now celebrating the life of Catholic schools in our country. To be honest, we’re not exactly sure of their birthday. Some claim St. Mary’s opened in Philadelphia in 1727 as the first parochial school. Yet 100 years earlier, Catholics were educating their children apart from the public school system. In the 1600’s, the English colonists set up their publicly supported schools. These schools were overwhelming Protestant; and, if the truth be told, not Catholic-friendly. The Catholic minority began entrusting their children to dedicated educators like Jesuits. Affluent families even sent their children off to Europe. So highly did they value a Catholic education.
In the 1852 Council of Baltimore, the bishops urged all parishes to support Catholic schools. Today there are over 8,000 Catholic schools across the nation. In our diocese alone, there are 57 elementary schools and 9 high schools. We educate 17,800 students. Almost 90% are Catholic. Enrollment in our schools is growing and giving us some challenges we are happy to face. In Sussex and Morris counties, we need more classrooms. In urban settings, we have the students; we need more funding.
Recently, I gave a day of reflection for the bishop and priests of Jefferson City, Missouri. I asked the bishop the cost of tuition in his schools. His answer surprised me. “It’s practically free,” he said with a broad smile. In the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, most active Catholic parents pay no tuition. The stewardship efforts of all parishioners fund Catholic education. What a great way of sharing! In fact, it’s a gift of over $45 million to the state in savings to taxpayers. But more important, it is a gift to the students.
Learning facts and dates and acquiring skills---there’s more to education than that. And here’s the value of Catholic schools. The Holy Father has said, “Catholic schools have proven to be a priceless value…teaching children to know, love and serve God and preparing them to take their place with responsibility in the community.” Students are best educated when learning is part of their integral formation as a person.
Catholic schools aim at academic excellence. They develop the moral conscience of the young. They not only imprint on the mind of the young principles of moral behavior; they also instill in their heart the desire to discern and choose the good. Many parents rightly display bumper stickers proudly touting their children as A-students. Grades are important, but they are a part of the proper formation of the student. True education leads the young to recognize the truth about themselves. They have a God-given dignity. They come from God. They are destined to return to God. Each of us has a value beyond our work, beyond our achievement. It is the daily recognition of our spiritual dignity that gives us hope. Students in Catholic schools can no more escape this truth than they can the air they breathe.
Catholic education helps the young grow into mature, intelligent and faithful disciples of Jesus. It leads them to recognize their unique place in the plan of God. It opens them to their own particular vocation for the common good. It forms them to see themselves not in terms of having more and more, but in terms of being more and more, as a person, as a child of God and as a citizen of this world.
Public schools play an important role in our society. Up until the seventh grade, I attended a great public school in Newark, Ann Street School in the Ironbound. One teacher I’ll never forget was Mrs. Brown. After school opened with the
Our Father and the
Pledge of Allegiance, she would always open the Bible and read us a story. I was fascinated. A devout Protestant woman teaching in a public school gave me my first love of Scripture. But times have changed. Public schools, owned and operated by the State, have chosen to travel another path. If ever there was a need, a pressing need, for the total Christian formation Catholic schools can give, it is today. Catholic schools are truly a gift to the student and a gift from the Church to society.