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Sixth annual priest conference on Catholic schools goes virtual

The July conference hosted by the Catholic Education Foundation includes a wide range of presentations and workshops led by a variety of educators and clergy.

A first-grader works on a math problem at St. Kateri School in Irondequoit, N.Y., in this 2013 photo. (CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier)

The Catholic Education Foundation is hosting its sixth annual seminar on the role of the priest in today’s Catholic school from July 14-16, 2020. The intended audience is bishops, priests, and seminarians and is based on the conviction of Fr. Peter Stravinskas, executive director of CEF and frequent contributor to CWR, 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 challenges facing priests in their work with parochial 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 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. Over the past few years, I have addressed students at a number of seminaries on this topic; they have responded most enthusiastically; the vast majority of them are Catholic school products.

Hence, the point of this seminar, which will be in its sixth 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: This year’s seminar will be somewhat different? How so?

Fr. Stravinskas: Our “home” for this conference for the past three years has been Seton Hall University, where we have been warmly welcomed – and that was the plan for this year as well. Although the University had cancelled on-campus courses for summer school, until two weeks ago, summer conferences were still a “go”; then I received the sad notice that conferences, too, would not be held.

I surveyed the board members of the Catholic Education Foundation and our roster of presenters; all expressed disappointment about the situation but unanimously voted for our taking the virtual route, lest the momentum of the past five years be lost. So, online it is.

Priest-participants have always appreciated the liturgies of the conference, as well as the fraternity and net-working; a constant comment has highlighted the beauty and “Catholic air” of Seton Hall; the final day’s visit to the inestimable Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, along with the concluding meal have been deeply appreciated. All of that will be lost. Going virtual, however, may well increase our base since the cost of the seminar is lower (now only $300), no travel expenses are involved, and participation can occur from anywhere. Everyone, however, has stressed that this should be a one-time only approach.

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

Fr. Stravinskas: This conference for priests and seminarians will take place from Tuesday, July 14, through Thursday, July 16.

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.

In light of President Trump’s strongly enunciated support for programs to aid Catholic school parents (see my recent CWR article on that matter), particular attention will be given as to what such programs might look like.

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.

I am happy to report that CEF has entered into the innovative program with the Archdiocese of Detroit, whereby priests interested in becoming pastors of parishes with schools attend a workshop held in Detroit and then participate in this summer institute. I hope this becomes a model for other dioceses.

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 three 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 reflected: “Priestly presence in our schools in inextricably linked to the culture and ethos of the Catholic identity of the Catholic school and its ultimate success.”

CWR: Since this will be the sixth “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 mself) 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 (director of the office of Catholic schools of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), Thomas Carroll and Kevin Kijewski (school superintendents for the Archdioceses of Boston and Detroit, respectively), Sr. Elizabeth Ann Allen of Aquinas College in Nashville; Br. Owen Sadlier (Cathedral Seminary House of Formation); Sr. Mary Elizabeth Merriam, a science teacher at St. Ignatius College Prep, Chicago. Father Christopher Peschel (Fall River) and Monsignor Joseph Schaedel (Indianapolis), priests with on-the-ground experience, will provide invaluable insights.

A first-time dimension will be a panel of college seminarians, who will discuss their experience in working at a Catholic high school this past academic year.

We continue our international appeal, with sign-ups so far from Africa and the Philippines.

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: 215-327-5754.

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

[Note: Fr. Peter Stravinskas serves as the president of the Catholic Education Foundation.]

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