Pope Francis

“We are living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data—all treated as being of equal importance—and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment. In response, we need to provide an education which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values”

Pope Francis, excerpt from Evangelii Gaudium, November 24, 2013

It is the religious character, identity and culture that distinguishes Catholic schools and allows them to be successful. In order to strengthen our mission and continue to evangelize, we need all Catholic schools to be exemplary. The challenges of our society mandate the need for true Catholic schools, not simply schools operated by Catholics.

In the past, religious sisters, brothers and priests staffed Catholic schools, establishing and sustaining their Catholic culture. As we continue to face many challenges, I believe the blueprint has been laid out, the foundation is in place and with proper leadership; success will be inevitable.

In the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools, defining characteristics of Catholic schools have been mapped out as a concrete guide for continued growth and improvement. Focusing on the standards of: Mission and Catholic Identity, Governance and Leadership, Academic Excellence and Operational Vitality, these standards truly define what we need in order to remain vital.

Vast changes have swept across the societal and educational landscape.  How we respond to these changes will affect the future of Catholic education. Using the standards and benchmarks as a template we can address our future with tools which will allow success to flourish. Attention to developing the whole child, fostering parish and school relationships, and supporting families are all integral components to accomplish a re-imagined mission and the job of evangelization.

As a leader, the need for a well-articulated execution of mission and evangelization will allow for enhanced confidence from our current constituents, allow opportunities to build community, welcome new families and complement to true mission of our Catholic schools.

The Bishops of the United States are deeply committed to Catholic schools and clearly understand our need to be more aggressive in supporting this important mission in the Church especially in our increasingly secular and materialistic society where the public education system has basically removed any mention of God or prayer from its schools and its classrooms. As President of the Bishop’s Conference, Cardinal Dolan asked that the Conference focus more attention on the situation of our Catholic schools and increase its efforts in articulating more clearly the importance of the work of education in the mission of the Church and make the agenda on Catholic schools as much a priority as the Bishops stance on pro-life and immigration.

One of the challenges that we face is the increasing financial burden of running a Catholic school. This is an issue that will require great resolve on the part of those involved in this ministry of Catholic education. The Catholic Community not only has the ability but also the means to ensure the existence of our Catholic schools far into the future. Today, the Archdiocese of New York today announced the launch of Inner-City Scholarship Fund’s $125 million “Kids Are Our Capital” endowment campaign led by a record-setting founding gift of $40 million from Christine and Stephen A. Schwarzman.  The Schwarzmans’ gift is the single largest donation in the Archdiocese’s 207 year history.

However, if this level of philanthropy is to become more routine, it is incumbent that we as school leaders take a hard look at how our schools are run and operated. We need to re-educate the Catholic community as to the importance of these schools in the mission and work of the Church. We must do so without hesitation or timidity and without being nostalgic in terms of what was in the past, but rather address what is needed for their future success.

In its document entitled “The Catholic School” the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education in 1977 pointed out that the Church establishes schools because she considers them as a privileged means of promoting the formation of the whole person, since the school is a center in which a specific concept of the world, of man, and of history is developed and conveyed. (The Catholic School-Scared Congregation for Catholic Education 1977) This definition of the role of Catholic schools as the place where formation of the whole person takes place is something that we need to understand more fully and to express more effectively in marketing and promoting our schools.

At the same time we must see the schools within the context of the mission of the Church – the Church has a mission and therefore, we have schools. It should be understood clearly that the reason we establish, support and maintain Catholic schools is because we believe the truth about life, the truth about the origin, identity and destiny of every human person is rooted in our understanding of the person of Jesus Christ.

It is important that Catholic schools not be portrayed simply as competitors to the government run school system, nor should our efforts be seen as a lack of support for the public education system. The reality is that we need to support every effort to help all children achieve their God-given potential and to become esteemed members of the human family based on their human dignity as children made in the image and likeness of God. The public schools are not our competition and the product we strive to produce is more than simply a literate person who can achieve economic success. Our goal must be to prepare students not just for college, but heaven as well.

If we are to seek and expect unprecedented philanthropic support so that Catholic schools prosper then we must re-evaluate many of the structures and resources that helped in the past, discard what is no longer relevant in the current milieu and put in place the foundation stones that will carry us through to the future.

A crucial element of this is leadership. This is perhaps the most important challenge to the survival of the Catholic Schools. We need to develop, form and train individuals who can guide our schools into the future. The leaders must be totally committed to the mission of Catholic education. They must be faith-filled people who daily practice their faith and will be true role models for the staff and students they will encounter on a daily basis. They must have a passion for the work that needs to be done and a willingness to work to achieve the goals that are put forth. These individuals must embody and live the Catholic identity that we proclaim and be examples of individuals who, with God’s grace, have become true disciples of the Lord.

As a result of an early retirement option, the New York Archdiocese has 42 new school leaders this year – 42 transformational leaders. More than 200 applications from across the United States were received. Many candidates expressed a desire to be a part of the Catholic school leadership team who rewrites the script of Catholic schools from a declining system to one which is growing, flourishing and philanthropically endowed.

From 1920 to 2015 the number of Catholics in the United States increased by 28%. One would think this an asset for Catholic schools. Yet under the watch of the Catholic school leaders of the baby boomer generation,  the number of children enrolled in Catholic schools declined year after year. To paraphrase JFK’s inaugural address – Let it be known from this day forth to friend and foe alike that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Catholic school leaders. Born in the latter half of the last century, educated in a post Vatican II church, hardened by scandal and committed to reestablishing a Catholic school culture which provides opportunities for students to encounter the risen Christ while challenged in a rigorous academic environment and empowered to develop the gifts given to them by God.

About the Author – Steven Virgadamo

Steve Virgadamo provides thought leadership to Church leaders, Trustees and Board members. His expert counsel over many years has led to many Bishops, Chief Finance Officers, Superintendents, Pastors and Principals to consider him to be the expert in both Church and school management and the most premier consultant for Catholic schools, colleges and universities. He travels throughout the United States and internationally to mentor and teach school leaders, teachers, pastors, and more. His domestic and international reputation has led to Steven’s selection as a delegate for the World Congress on Catholic Education sponsored by the Congregation of Catholic Education.

Thank you for reading!

Steve Virgadamo