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Recent CEF seminar on the role of priests in Catholic schools grows in scope, participation

“We had a surprise visitor in the person of the indomitable Francis Cardinal Arinze,” says Fr. Peter Stravinskas, executive director of CEF. “All were inspired by the Cardinal’s wisdom, commitment and, of course, his famous wit.”

A fourth-grader raises her hand to answer a question at Christ the King School in Irondequoit, N.Y., in this 2011 photo. (CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier)

The Catholic Education Foundation recently hosted 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. Like previous CEF seminars, the gathering was 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. CWR recently spoke with Fr. Stravinskas about the most recent event and a last minute guest: Francis Cardinal Arinze.

CWR: First, can you remind readers of the reason for the program? How did it go? Who participated? How was it different from previous years?

Fr. Stravinskas: We took this initiative four years ago for two reasons: first, because the data show that the presence, commitment and involvement of priests is a sine qua non for the success of Catholic elementary and secondary schools; second, because most priests have very little training to fulfill their critical role.

From all indications, it was a signal success. For the first time, we “went international,” having a priest sent by the Archbishop of Armagh in Northern Ireland and another coming from the Archdiocese of Kingston in Jamaica. The general program is always the same, but we constantly tweak it as we take into consideration new developments or suggestions from previous participants.

I am pleased to note that we had three seminarians and that the vast majority of the priests were in their twenties and thirties and nearly every one was himself a product of Catholic schools. In fact, only two were over 45! This is truly a strong reason for hope. If the junior clergy are on board for the schools, the future is bright.

CWR: What kind of support did you have from dioceses and locals?

Fr. Stravinskas: We added four new dioceses to our roster this time around. The grand prize went to the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend with four priests in attendance.

As usual, the support “on the ground” was excellent at Seton Hall University. Dean of the College of Education and Human Services, Dr. Maureen Gillette, was her usual congenial and helpful self, as was Father Brian Needles, Director of Campus Ministry. The personnel in the housing department did everything possible to ensure a pleasant stay for all. I am also grateful to the administration of the Seminary for their gracious hospitality in giving us their refectory for our meals.

CWR: Who were the presenters?

Fr. Stravinskas: We had speakers representing a wide range of issues facing schools, including school safety and ways to advance public and Catholic awareness about the importance of our schools.

Dr. Mario Enzler, a former Swiss Guard (!), informed us of a rather new program he directs at the Catholic University of America to assist pastors with the financial dimension of their work; he is also the founder of a classical Catholic school. We had a very interesting conversation on the educational methods of St. John Bosco and St. John Baptist de la Salle. Several presenters – all women – weighed in on their experiences of dealing with priests in schools, both positive and negative. Some priests discussed their involvement with the education apostolate as administrators, teachers, pastors or parochial vicars. I handled the matters of Church teaching on Catholic schools and Catholic identity.

We had a surprise visitor in the person of the indomitable Francis Cardinal Arinze. When I serendipitously heard that the Cardinal (a long-time friend) would be in the New York area, I fired off an email to him asking if he could grace us with his presence. Within five minutes, he said that he would be in Newark during the days of our seminar and that if I could get a car to pick him up, he would be delighted to come, despite the fact that he was flying back to Rome that very afternoon.

Cardinal Arinze has a particular affection for Catholic schools and specifically in regard to the role of priests. As a boy in a Catholic primary school in his native Nigeria, he was taught by Blessed Cyprian Michael Tansi, which contact brought about his conversion to the Catholic Faith at the age of nine. Not many can claim the distinction of being taught by a beatus. All were inspired by the Cardinal’s wisdom, commitment and, of course, his famous wit. He was a major hit.

CWR: What was the reaction of the priests and seminarians in attendance, as well as the various presenters?

Fr. Stravinskas: Let’s let them speak for themselves.

A participant/presenter was Bishop James Massa, auxiliary of Brooklyn, a scholar and educator in his own right. He observed: “The seminar occasioned some excellent discussion about the spiritual and institutional challenges facing our primary and secondary schools. How do we maintain and grow enrollment and provide an innovative educational model that is attractive to millennial parents? How do we hire and keep teachers who are up to date in their subject areas and pedagogical methods, while at the same time invested in the Catholic mission of the school? These are the questions that keep me up at night.”

Bishop Massa also took account of the youthful dimension of the group: “I was especially impressed by the younger priests in attendance who are trying to enhance the catholicity of the schools on their parish campus or in their region. Instead of resigning themselves to the disconnect between attendance at the Catholic school and sharing in the sacramental life of the Church, these younger men are finding creative ways to bring Jesus and the Eucharist into the life of the school.”

Father James Cadman said: “It was a wonderful experience to attend this year’s conference. As a pastor, with the care of seven schools in Jamaica, W.I., the opportunity to reflect on the important role of our schools in evangelization was extremely beneficial. The gift of Catholic education is truly to be treasured, especially in our situation where the Catholic population has experienced great decline. Our schools, therefore, provide an indispensable means of strengthening the Catholic faith in our local church. A big thank you to Father Stravinskas; this conference has rekindled my priestly zeal for our Catholic education.”

A veteran of the program and priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Father Christopher Peschel commented: “The three conferences I have attended have served to increase the convictions that the priest is an integral and indispensable component of the parish school. As a parish priest blessed to have a parish school, I have been reminded of the importance of being present to the school. I have become more and more convinced that Catholic schools are the greatest tools of the New Evangelization at the Church’s disposal.”

Lieutenant Christopher York, a presenter, came at the event from a variety of perspectives: “This was a scholarly workshop that addressed contemporary issues facing educators in the school system. The institute not only discussed how to mitigate these issues but how to improve upon their leadership approach using sound pedagogy, orthodoxy and truly Catholic teachings in our schools. As an educator, law enforcement officer, and parent of a daughter in Catholic school, I was equally impressed by the large number of young priests who felt called to attend this conference to expand on their priestly vocation.”

Father Dennis McManus, professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, has a unique set of credentials, having taught as a religious Brother, a layman and a priest. He concluded: “I don’t know of any program like this in the U.S. – unabashedly Catholic, practical, prayerful and theoretical, all at the same time.”

CWR: This has obviously become a “tradition”. Any plans to make any changes?

Fr. Stravinskas: One suggestion that came up repeatedly in the post-event feedback was a desire to increase the seminar by a day. This recommendation is interesting because the first year of the program was only two days, and a request was made to make it a three-day event, which we did. Now it seems there is a perceived need to make it a four-day event. We are already looking into the feasibility of making that adjustment.

Anyone who had been unable to attend the seminar, can go to our website and view each of the sessions there (catholiceducationfoundation.com).

Yes, this has become a “tradition,” which we are certainly planning to maintain. Next year, back at Seton Hall, in all likelihood during the second full week of July. Stay tuned for details.

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