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Conference at Seton Hall to focus on the role of the priest in today’s Catholic school

Topics being covered in the July 18-20 program include conciliar and papal teaching on Catholic education; the history of Catholic education in the United States; the priestly presence in the school; financial concerns; models of governance and best practices.

Sarah Joseph, left, and Clare Deely, students at St. John Vianney Parochial School in Nashville, Tenn., sing at the end of the all-schools Mass Feb. 1 in celebration of Catholic Schools Week. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

The Catholic Education Foundation is hosting its third annual seminar on the role of the priest in today’s Catholic school at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey (a ten-minute ride from Newark Airport) from July 18 to July 20. The intended audience is bishops, priests and seminarians and is based on the conviction of Father Peter Stravinskas, executive director of CEF, that the viability of Catholic schools is directly proportionate to the presence and activity of priests. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap, Archbishop of Boston and CEF board member concurs: “This is a most needed initiative, and I hope for a healthy response from the dioceses.”

Topics being covered in the three-day program include: conciliar and papal teaching on Catholic education; the history of Catholic education in the United States; the priestly presence in the school; financial concerns; models of governance and best practices.

In addition to Father Stravinskas, other presenters are: Keith Borchers of the Evangelium Consulting Group; Dr. Thomas Burnford, president of the National Catholic Education Association; Sr. Agnes Cousins, religion department chairman, Charlotte Catholic High School; Mary Pat Donoghue of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education; Dr. Maureen Gillette, dean of the College of Education and Human Services, Seton Hall University; Vera and Richard Hough, Catholic school parents; Most Rev. Arthur Kennedy, Ph.D., Auxiliary Bishop of Boston; Dr. Constance McCue, director of the Catholic School Leadership Program, Seton Hall University; Most Rev. James Massa, Auxiliary Bishop of Brooklyn; Stephen Perla, superintendent of schools of the Diocese of Fall River; Anthony Pienta of the Philanthropy Roundtable; Rev. Msgr. Joseph Schaedel, former principal/vicar general, Archdiocese of Indianapolis; Charles Taylor; former superintendent of schools, Diocese of Gaylord.

Through a cooperative effort with the College of Education of Seton Hall University, participants will also be able to earn graduate credit. Catholic World Report recently corresponded with Father Stravinskas about the conference and current challenges faced by Catholic schools.

CWR: What was the main impetus for beginning this workshop for priests on Catholic education three years ago?

Fr. Stravinskas: The involvement of the priest in the school has been a pet project of mine for years, however, four years ago at the fall meeting of the U.S. bishops, a report on Catholic schools was presented to the body of bishops, in which the essential role of the priest was highlighted. Actually, the report urged bishops to be especially attentive to this issue; that call to action motivated me to put together this program, which has been very successful. We have had priests from more than thirty dioceses over the past two years. As registration has begun for this year, we already have three new dioceses represented. Clearly, we are fulfilling a genuine need of the Church.

CWR: Fr. Stravinskas, you are an alumnus of Seton Hall University. What is the significance of this workshop taking place this year at the nation’s oldest and largest diocesan university, which is also the home of one of the nation’s most historic seminaries?

Fr. Stravinskas: Truth be told, I am a triple alumnus: a bachelor’s degree in classical languages and French; a master’s degree in school administration; a master’s degree in biblical theology.

The University, very obviously, is named for Mother Seton, a prime mover in the parochial school movement of the United States and foundress of the Sisters of Charity (who taught me up through the fifth grade); the University was founded in 1856 by Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley, Mother Seton’s nephew. In its long and distinguished history, Seton Hall has trained tens of thousands of Catholic school teachers and thousands of priests. Indeed, the University still boasts of a large contingent of priests serving in administration and teaching.

We have made a point of having our seminars at sites that have a seminary, precisely to underscore the critical connection between the priest and the Catholic school.

CWR: What are positive characteristics of the diocesan Catholic school systems represented by the participants at this year’s conference?

Fr. Stravinskas: All of the speakers are veteran Catholic educators with a track-record of a strong commitment to Catholic identity and serious accomplishments in the apostolate of Catholic schools. In other words, the seminar participants are not going to be in daily contact with “ivory tower” theorists but with people who will be speaking from experience and conviction.

CWR: As in years past, you have an impressive array of important speakers at this year’s conference. Can you highlight the contributions of one or two for our readers?

Fr. Stravinskas: We are very delighted to have among our presenters this year the president of the National Catholic Education Association, as well as the dean of Seton Hall’s College of Education and the director of their Catholic school leadership program. A new feature this time around will be an “alumni panel,” that is, priests who have participated in the past and who will discuss how what they learned led to concrete implementation in their own particular apostolates, whether that be as parish priests or full-time teachers.

CWR: What are some of your concrete recommendations for how diocesan bishops can improve not only the Catholic identity and mission of their schools but likewise to encourage the pro-active support of Catholic education on the part of their priests, especially pastors?

Fr. Stravinskas: Every study demonstrates clearly, as well as the direct experience of principals, parents and bishops, that the parish priest is key to the success of a Catholic school. The priest can make or break a school. Therefore, the priest must be convinced of the critical place of our Catholic schools in ensuring the vitality of the Church in our country. I would also make two appeals to bishops: first, that they only appoint as pastors to parishes with schools priests who are totally committed to the project of Catholic education; secondly, that they re-evaluate their own willingness to assign priests to full-time teaching, especially in our high schools (particularly due to the sensitive nature of those years in surfacing and fostering priestly vocations).

CWR: What degree programs already exist that you would recommend to a priest interested in working in the field of Catholic education?

Fr. Stravinskas: Seton Hall has a fine program in this regard, and Dr. McCue is going to share information about it with our seminar participants. The University also gives a generous tuition reduction to clergy, religious and Catholic school teachers – another sign of its commitment to the mission of the Church.

CWR: What role, if any, do seminarians and newly ordained priests play in the life of the Catholic school?

Fr. Stravinskas: I began my teaching career as a first-year college seminarian and have spent my entire priestly life (now going on forty years) in the Church’s education apostolate. I happen to subscribe to a policy that many dioceses had years ago (and which, regrettably, most have abandoned in recent years) whereby all newly-ordained priests spent their first five years as full-time high school teachers. It is my considered judgement that if a priest can teach high schoolers, he can do anything after that as that work requires one to be on his toes, to be prepared, to be present – all skills “transferrable” to any other priestly work.

I should also note that I can happily report that the seminarians and young priests I know are intensely interested in our schools and want to gain the knowledge – and confidence – to be effective ministers in the school setting.

CWR: How can readers help?

Fr. Stravinskas: First of all, pray for the continued success of our efforts. Second, pass the word to priests who could benefit from this experience. Third, provide a scholarship (we have kept the cost at $500 for the past three years) to a priest whose parish or school might not have the financial means to send him. In any and all of these ways, you will be sharing in the promotion and growth of our schools.

For further information and registration, visit CEF’s website:catholiceducationfoundation.com.

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