The Catholic Education Foundation is hosting its seventh annual seminar on the role of the priest in today’s Catholic school from July 13-15, 2021. 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 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 United States Catholic Conference (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 four 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.
Hence, the point of this seminar, which will be in its seventh 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 presenters and content of the conference?
Fr. Stravinskas: Although we had been having our conference each year at Seton Hall University for four years, last year’s version had to be done in virtual mode due to State-imposed restrictions. That was going to be the case again this year. The consensus of presenters and participants last summer was that having the event was better than cancelling, however, all agreed that the quality of the experience was significantly diminished by the lack of real, direct, human interaction. Hence, our Board asked me to find a venue where in-person interaction would be possible.
Divine Providence came through as I found a truly beautiful and easily accessible site at Our Lady of Florida Spiritual Center in North Palm Beach, a ten-minute ride from West Palm Beach International Airport. This conference for bishops, priests and seminarians will take place from Tuesday, July 13, through Thursday, July 15.
“The Role of the Priest in Today’s Catholic School” is the title of the conference and includes workshops dealing with topics including: 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.
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 elementary and secondary 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 very 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 us.
Secondly, he must say some very potentially 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 four 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. The aggressive promotion of “gender theory” and “critical race theory” in government schools across our nation should give any intelligent parent reason to make the local Catholic school the educational home for one’s children.
Thirdly, the priest 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 of Boston 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, rector of St. Joseph Seminary in New York, 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 consistently lent his support to this endeavor as well.
CWR: Since this will be the seventh “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 (director of the office of Catholic schools of the USCCB), Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane and chairman of the Committee on Catholic Education of the USCCB (he was a long-time teacher and administrator as a priest), as well as leading laymen like Michael Acquilano of the South Carolina Catholic Conference and Thomas Carroll, the highly successful superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston.
It is a very positive sign to me that many of our presenters this year are themselves priests, with vast experience in the Catholic school apostolate. The priest-to-priest shared vision and experience adds a particular dimension to the presentations.
We have been able to keep the cost of the seminar stable over the years – a very reasonable $600.
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 past conferences.
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