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5th annual CEF seminar aims to support, help priests in their roles in Catholic schools

Priests, says Fr. Peter Stravinskas, executive director of Catholic Education Foundation, much remind people “that the Catholic school is an essential element of Catholic life …”

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 is hosting its fifth annual seminar on the role of the priest in today’s Catholic school at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey from July 16-19, 2019. 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. Fr. Stravinskas recently spoke with CWR about the seminar, the role of clergy in Catholic schools, and the work of CEF in helping clergy in that role.

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

Fr. Stravinskas: Over the past four 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 George Lucas and Bishop Daniel 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 two years ago 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 fall, I addressed the students at the college seminary for the Archdiocese of New York and the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre on this topic; they responded most enthusiastically; the vast majority of them are Catholic school products.

Hence, the point of this seminar, which will be in its fifth 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: Who are the presenters and what is the content of the conference?

Fr. Stravinskas: This conference for priests and seminarians will take place at Seton Hall University, from Tuesday, July 16, through Friday, July 19. Due to the warm hospitality we have received at Seton Hall University – from both the College of Education and Human Services and the Seminary – we have made it our “home”. Furthermore, Seton Hall is little more than a fifteen-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; Classical Education and Catholic Identity as Important Niches; Religion and Science as Compatible in the Curriculum.

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, as the Code of Canon Law reminds all.

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 children in jeopardy – a point highlighted in a study two years ago, 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. And when we begin to consider topics related to marriage, family and sexuality, the need for Catholic schools becomes more obvious than ever before.

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, Fort Wayne-South Bend.

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 fifth “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) will be the same; 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: Mary Pat Donoghue (the new director of the office of Catholic schools of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), Kevin Kijewski (superintendent of schools for the Detroit Archdiocese), Sr. Elizabeth Ann Allen of Aquinas College in Nashville; Br. Owen Sadlier (Cathedral Seminary House of Formation); Christopher Evans (vice-president for academic affairs at St. Thomas University in Houston); Sr. Mary Mark of Holy Family Academy in Batlic, Connecticut.

We continue our international appeal. Once again, the Archdiocese of Armagh in Northern Irland is sending a priest; we also expect a priest from the Philippines and another from Kenya.

Due to popular demand, we are expanding the seminar from three days to four. It is always a good sign when participants say the program should have gone longer, rather than that it should have ended sooner!

CWR: What can readers do and how can they 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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