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4th annual Catholic Education Foundation seminar to aid priests in their roles in Catholic schools

Cardinal Newman “makes the point that without the presence of the ‘institutional’ Church in the life of a Catholic university, the project is bound to lose its moorings,” says Fr. Peter Stravinskas, executive director of CEF. “That is equally true of Catholic education at the lower levels.”

Father Larry McBride of Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Henderson, Ky., delivers the homily during a school Mass March 28. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

The Catholic Education Foundation is hosting its fourth annual seminar on the role of the priest in today’s Catholic school at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey from July 18 to July 20, 2018. The intended audience is bishops, priests and seminarians and is based on the conviction of Fr. Peter Stravinskas, executive director of CEF, that the viability of Catholic schools is directly proportionate to the presence and activity of priests.

In addition to Fr. Stravinskas, other presenters include Dr. Mark Bauerlein (Senior Editor, First Things), Dr. Margaret Dames (Superintendent of Schools, Archdiocese of Newark), Dr. Denise D’Attore (Head of School, Regina Luminis Academy, Berwyn, PA), Rev. Michael Drea (National Chaplain for Mission & Identity, FOCUS), Dr. Mario Enzler (Program Director, Ecclesial Administration & Management, The Catholic University of America), Dr. Maureen Gillette (Dean, College of Education and Human Services, Seton Hall University), Richard & Vera Hough (Catholic school parents), Sr. Theresa Kelly, F.M.A. (Director of Faith Formation, Salesian Sisters; Professor, Assumption College), Dr. Constance McCue (Director, Catholic School Leadership Program, Seton Hall University), Rev. Dennis McManus, Ph.D. (Professor, St. John Seminary, Boston), Douglas Minson (Headmaster, Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, Boonton, NJ), Rev. Daniel O’Mullane, S.T.L. (Pastor, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Boonton, NJ), Rev. Christopher Phillips (Founding Pastor, The Atonement Academy, San Antonio, TX), Rev. John Serio, S.D.B. (President, Salesian High School, New Rochelle, NY), Alicia Simon (FADICA), and Christopher York (Professor of Criminal Justice, Monmouth University & Brookdale Community College).

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 Fr. Stravinskas about the conference and current challenges faced by Catholic schools.

CWR: Who is the intended audience for this conference, and why this particular topic?

Fr. Stravinskas: Over the past several years, our Catholic Education Foundation has received consistent input from teachers, administrators, parents and bishops that most priests either do not know or fail to comprehend the critical importance of Catholic schools in the life of the Church, particularly as a vehicle of the new evangelization. I recall the 2014 presentations of Archbishop Lucas and Bishop Flores at the fall meeting of the USCCB. After noting that “the Bishop and the Pastor have an important role” in Catholic school maintenance and development, Bishop Flores remarked that to many, this may sound like a “throw-away” line. Unfortunately, that is not the case as all too many clerics over the past three decades have grown weary with the struggle to keep our schools viable, appealing and accessible. If it is true that “personnel is policy,” then the next statement of Bishop Flores is key: “As Bishops, we must make every effort to assign pastors to parishes with schools who are champions of Catholic schools.”

My own experience offers yet another dimension, namely, that the majority of the “junior clergy” are most supportive of Catholic schools, however, they do not know exactly what they can or should be doing to advance the cause, either because they did not attend Catholic schools themselves or went in an era when clerical involvement was low or even non-existent.

In fact, a very interesting study surfaced last year on the attitudes of seminarians toward our schools; it was both encouraging and disturbing. Encouraging, in that – unlike the older generation of priests – they are quite supportive of Catholic schools. Disturbing, in that they say they have been given no tools in the seminary to prepare them for any role in the schools. This past Lent, I addressed the students at St. John’s Seminary in Boston on this topic; they responded most enthusiastically.

Hence, the point of this seminar, which will be in its fourth go-round. The intended audience is priests (pastors or parochial vicars) with schools; priests assigned to full-time work in a school; seminarians desirous of becoming comfortable with assuming a role in Catholic education.

CWR: Can you tell readers a bit about the presentations and content of the conference?

Fr. Stravinskas: This conference for priests and seminarians will take place at Seton Hall University, from Tuesday, July 17, through Thursday, July 19.

We had been moving the event around. Last summer, we landed at Seton Hall and got such a wonderful reception from both the College of Education and the Seminary, that we have decided to make the University the permanent home of the conference. Furthermore, Seton Hall is little more than a ten-minute taxi ride from Newark International Airport.

“The Role of the Priest in Today’s Catholic School” is the title of the conference and includes workshops dealing with topics like: Conciliar and Papal Teaching on Catholic Education; The History of Catholic Education in the United States; The Priest’s Presence in the School Community (Students, Faculty, Administration, Parents); The Priest as the Public Relations Man of the School; Financial Concerns; Models of Governance and Best Practices.

CWR: How important is the role of the clergy in the vitality and success of parochial schools? How and why has that changed over the past few decades?

Fr. Stravinskas: In one of Cardinal Newman’s lectures which became his famous Idea of a University, he makes the point that without the presence of the “institutional” Church in the life of a Catholic university, the project is bound to lose its moorings. That is equally true of Catholic education at the lower levels. In the 1970s, it was not uncommon for “liberated” nuns to tell priests they were not welcome in the schools and that their only role was to pay the bills. Many priests of that generation became quite embittered and harbor those resentments to this day.

With the absence of priests, orthodoxy and Catholic identity waned in many places, leading to a further crisis in the schools. The mass exodus of women religious from the schools is yet another reason why the presence of priests is even more important than ever.

The involvement of a priest, however, is not simply or even primarily that of a watchdog; his involvement is needed to provide pastoral support for faculty and administration, to teach religion or other subjects according to his abilities, to be part of the lives of the students on the playground, in the cafeteria, at social and athletic events and, of course, for sacramental/liturgical services.

Not a few bishops – precipitously and foolishly, in my opinion – withdrew priests from high school work, yet the presence of priests there provided one of the most effective “recruitment” devices we ever had for priestly vocations. Dioceses that have kept priests there – or which are putting them back – know that.

CWR: What are some of the more common challenges facing a priest in dealing with Catholic schools?

Fr. Stravinskas: The first is that of regularly reminding his people that the Catholic school is an essential element of Catholic life – whether or not there is a parish school, whether or not individuals have children of school age – and, therefore, deserving wholehearted support.

Secondly, he must say some very unpopular things, for instance, that attendance at the government schools (the so-called “public” schools) places the souls of their children in jeopardy – a point highlighted in a study last year, which documented that Catholic children in the state schools most often lose their faith in God and the Church as early as fourth grade, due to the type of science classes they experience.

Thirdly, he must ensure that no child is ever denied a Catholic education for want of financial resources.

Fourthly, and this is often a very neuralgic piece of the whole project, he must help parents establish clear priorities: Is a winter vacation more important than a Catholic education for one’s children?

And so, we can see why CEF board member, Cardinal Sean O’Malley would say: “This is a most needed initiative, and I hope you obtain a healthy response from the dioceses.” I am happy to say that we have been obtaining a strong response from dioceses; more than thirty dioceses have sent men to our previous seminars, from such diverse environs as New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Colorado Springs, and Tyler. This year, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend is leading the pack by sending four priests. I would like to start a competition among the bishops on that score.

Bishop James Massa, auxiliary of Brooklyn, and an educator in his own right, wrote: “The role of the priest in shaping the identity and mission of our Catholic schools is indispensable. This summer’s CEF conference is sure to give excellent guidance to our priests in carrying out this role with renewed dedication and wisdom.” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, a staunch proponent of Catholic education, has also lent his support to this endeavor.

CWR: Since this will be the fourth “go-round,” as you put it, will topics and presenters be the same?

Fr. Stravinskas: Of course, some of the basics will be in place and thus, some of the presenters (including Yours Truly), however, we are blessed to have an exceptionally varied and talented group of speakers this year. Among others, I am happy to note the presence of: Mark Bauerlein of “First Things” and Mario Enzler, the founding director of the program in ecclesial administration and management at Catholic University; a staff member of FADICA (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities) will make a very hands-on presentation, with immediate applicability. There will be an interesting conversation about the educational methods of St. John Bosco and St. John Baptist De La Salle, as well as a session on how to transform a school into the classical model.

Last year, we experimented with offering an “alumni” panel, consisting of priests who had attended previous years; they gave enlightening and encouraging reports to the “new men” on how their participation enabled them to be more effective and confident leaders in their respective Catholic school communities. Its popularity calls for a similar session this year.

CWR: How can readers learn more about the conference and register?

Fr. Stravinskas: It would be wonderful if readers would promote this program with priests and even underwrite its costs. Further information can be found on our website: or by calling: 732-903-5213.

I would also invite those interested to scroll down on our home page to view videos of the past two conferences.

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