Dear Friends in Christ:
A day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, I celebrated a Mass at St. Peter's Cathedral. With the trauma and the television imagery still fresh, I faced the challenge of preaching to an assembly that included the children of St. Peter's grade school. I wondered how best to interpret the events in the light of our faith and how to discuss the devastating evil with the children in a way that was direct, honest and comforting.
It was a striking moment, not only to grieve together but to be thankful for the power of Catholic education. While our schools, like most schools, took full advantage of the expertise of counselors to help our children, we could also talk to them about the power of Jesus and His cross to rise above evil and to give us strength in the midst of these modern-day experiences of Calvary. We could talk to them about the power of Christian sacrifice exemplified by heroic firefighters and police officers who gave their lives for their brothers and sisters. We could talk about the power of their prayers and participation in the Mass for the souls of the victims and for the strength and comfort of their families. We could ask them to pray for world leaders and the crucial decisions they would make.
I have heard so many stories of how, in the days after Sept. 11, our Catholic school teachers and staffs helped the children in our schools to turn instinctively to God and to do so in the community of their Catholic school, where they daily engage in conversation with and about our Father. This was nothing new; turning to the Lord is part of the daily rhythm and experience of life in Catholic schools.
In all my years as a priest and bishop supporting and promoting Catholic education, the events of Sept. 11 illustrated for me in a new and dramatic way the benefit of a Catholic education. After that Mass I stood outside the cathedral and shook the hand of every child who emerged into the early autumn sun on their way back to school. St. Peter School has been serving and giving a lived experience of church since the 1830s, when the Daughters of Charity came to the parish to open a school. The Daughters are still there ministering in the heart of our city.
Out of that foundation sprang our present impressive array of schools that today educate 16,000 students. These schools stretch from Claymont to Salisbury and every one is a first-rate institution of which we all can be proud. The word "Catholic" that appears before "school" has always indicated a superior quality of academic education in the context of our faith. For generations that has been the mission of Catholic schools.
To monitor academic excellence, each of the schools in our diocese goes through a rigorous educational assessment under the auspices of the Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges. All our schools are certified through this professional educational association. A dramatic indicator of quality and excellence in education is the annual presentation of the coveted Blue Ribbon of Excellence awarded by the United States Department of Education. Our own Corpus Christi Catholic School, which is supported by the parishes of Elsmere and Hockessin in a unique partnership, was so honored this past year. This is the second time Corpus Christi has received this national recognition. St. Matthew Catholic School and Padua Academy have also been awarded the Blue Ribbon.
Catholic schools are a unique legacy from our shared past as church in this country. In many ways these institutions are unparalleled in their impact on our church and society today.
There have been critical moments in the history of Catholic schools. The bishops of the United States, meeting in Baltimore in 1884, mandated that every parish should have a school even before a church building, because the immigrants from western Europe were quickly losing the faith of their mothers and fathers in religion-neutral public schools, which were often blatantly anti-Catholic. Thus was born the system of Catholic schools as we know it today.
The decade of the 1970s saw a dramatic decrease of women and men religious as teachers in Catholic schools. Many people could not imagine these schools existing without these men and women, and thus predictions abounded that Catholic schools would be a thing of the past by the close of the decade. In 1972, the U.S. bishops wrote a pastoral titled "To Teach As Jesus Did," which made it clear that the schools were an educational and evangelizing mission of the church and that they existed because of this and not because of who happened to operate the schools. By 1980 the schools had successfully made the transition from mainly religious to lay staffs, and they continue to flourish nationwide to this day. Wilmington is among a number of dioceses that are opening new schools and expanding others.
I believe we are living in another critical moment for Catholic schools as we enter this new century. Good and intelligent people are wondering out loud if the age of the Catholic schools has not finally come to an end. Some see our schools as anachronistic and no longer essential to the life of the church. Others see them as not truly Catholic in the sense we understood in the 1950s. Still others see them as schools available only to those who can afford them, not open to all in our church.
Many people who hold these views rightly acknowledge the role played by Catholic schools in preserving the religion and culture of the western European immigrants who came to our shores in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They claim, however, that once those immigrants became assimilated into the American ethos after World War II, the need for the schools lessened because Catholic children were no longer being raised in a society hostile to their religious heritage and public education was no longer perceived as anti-Catholic. Why not, they argue, take advantage of an increasingly better public school system, and handle religious training in the home? Besides, the argument continues, Catholic schools no longer even pretend to educate the majority of Catholic children, as was the case in the 1950s, when some dioceses could lay claim to having every Catholic child in a Catholic school.
I submit, however, that Catholic schools are not only necessary as we venture into a new century, but they are so necessary that the mission of our church would be seriously handicapped if Catholic schools ceased to exist.
Consider the bishops' compelling argument from "To Teach As Jesus Did." Observing that school programs incorporated into Christian education are intended to "make one's faith become living, conscious and active through the light of instruction," the bishops say:
"The Catholic school is the unique setting within which this ideal can be realized in the lives of Catholic children and young people. Only in such a school can they experience learning and living fully integrated in the light of faith. The Catholic school strives to relate all human culture eventually to the news of salvation, so that the life of faith will illumine the knowledge which students gradually gain of the world, of life and of humankind. Here, therefore, students are instructed in human knowledge and skills, valued indeed for their own worth but seen simultaneously as deriving their most profound significance from God's plan for His creation. Here, too, instruction in religious truth and values is an integral part of the school program. It is not one more subject alongside the rest, but instead it is perceived and functions as the underlying reality in which the student's experiences of learning and living achieve their coherence and their deepest meaning." ("To Teach As Jesus Did," National Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 1972, pp. 28-29)
What the bishops saw in 1972, I see even more dramatically in 2002. Catholic schools are one of the last remaining formal ways in which the traditions, stories, experiences, and teachings of our Catholic community are consciously and effectively preserved, celebrated and promoted among our youth and, by extension, among the adults associated with them.
Because of this, the schools in our diocese and throughout the United States are, in truth, one of the major formal vehicles for promoting and expanding the lived faith community we call "church." Each year these schools send into the larger community men and women who are specifically trained in the message and ministry of the Catholic Church and who, according to every recent study about Catholic schools, enrich and enliven parish communities across our land. Further, as these schools continue to attract a growing number of people who are not of our faith, they are increasingly a major means of evangelization. The newly elected president of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, Wilton Gregory, for example, is an African American convert whose first experience of our church came through the Catholic school he attended.
Closer to home, this unique position of Catholic schools in the life of the church was dramatically articulated in a plan entitled "A Church Called To Serve," which resulted from a diocesan study conducted in the early 1990s. This plan, which spelled out pastoral directions for our diocese, characterized Catholic schools as bringing the community dimension of the church and the parish into "clear and particular" focus. "A Catholic school," the document went on to say, "is a community of adult men and women with students who share not only a common faith in Jesus Christ but also share the tasks of teaching and learning together." The gift of the Catholic school to the diocesan community, therefore, is that it serves as a living model of the church at large -- learning, living and growing together into the vision of Jesus which He called "The Kingdom."
Today we have witnessed a diminishing and a realignment of the traditional communities of the family, the civic establishment, public education and, yes, even of Catholic parishes. This movement has been so pervasive that it is difficult to name a strong and consistent community today that steeps people in powerful, vibrant traditions and that gives focus and meaning to the developing life of the young. Such communities of the past, it seems, have been partially replaced by fictional communities portrayed in the media and by life models that emphasize a rugged individualism that promotes personal development over, and sometimes to the exclusion of, vibrant human communities. Could the failure of so many marriages, for example, be laid at the doorstep of an educational process and a societal and family model that prepare the young for individualized living rather than for the building of deep communal commitments that are at the essence of a fully human life?
This concept of community is essential to our church, yet today we see precious few models of it in society. For many of our people, even the parish has become a place of weekly worship but is hardly a community force that comes into play every day of the week. The Catholic school, I believe, stands dramatically alone as not only a model of community but as a model of the church that we proclaim in so many ways but seldom see made flesh.
My decision in 1998 to embrace and continue our historic diocesan commitment to build new schools was a reflection of all I have cited here and my own lifelong commitment to Catholic school education. Further, diocesan studies of the 1990s made it abundantly clear to me that we have a new generation of young Catholic parents who live far from a Catholic school but who are strongly committed to giving their children the positive experience of education they themselves had in Catholic schools. How awesome is that commitment in light of the personal and financial sacrifices needed to make this education possible.
How equally awesome is the unselfish commitment of teachers, administrators and pastors who daily make Catholic school education possible. We as church need to make sure they are justly compensated for the service they render to the entire church. This beautiful commitment not only to educate but to do so by teaching as Jesus did is indeed a gift to our diocese, one that needs to be nurtured as much now as at any time in church history.
I am indebted to so many of you who have supported or will soon support this diocesan commitment to Catholic schools through our capital stewardship campaign, "Bringing the Vision to Life." We will move forth because of you. You are helping to make sure that the dream of the pioneer Catholic community in our country will continue to enrich our local church as we move into the new millennium.
To make sure that we move together as good stewards of our God-given community in faith, I have commissioned a study of the commitment to education in our Catholic schools. This study will assure us that as we expand our educational commitment we do so in the context of a comprehensive diocesan plan. We grow best when we have a realistic picture of our history and our present story as it gets told in our institutions. A task force of talented people has been formed to assist in this study and to recommend to me how we best should move forward with a plan for Catholic school education in the diocese over the next few years. As we work to "Bring the Vision to Life" we need to realize that we best respect any vision when we continually shed on it the light of reality and prudence. Our study will assist us in this effort.
The mission statement of our diocese says, in part, that "in communion with the pope, who is the bishop of Rome, and guided by the pastoral care of the Roman Catholic bishop of Wilmington, we are called and commissioned: "To be a community of faith living the love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit; "To proclaim the good news of salvation announced through Jesus Christ and confided to the church; "To celebrate the liturgy, especially in eucharist, the saving act of God in Christ; "To strengthen our allegiance to the Gospel and deepen our understanding of it; and finally, "To serve all our brothers and sisters as Jesus taught us."
Our Catholic schools actively respond to and live out each of the five calls of our diocesan mission. There are few institutions that do this so formatively and so consistently. Yes, our faith is shared in many ways and through many programs involving hundreds of dedicated people, but the schools reflect the calls of our mission in a way that is unmatched.
The strength and the unique contribution of Catholic schools lie in the amount of "quality time" in which they are present in the lives of children and adults and in how schools daily form community. The mission to educate is not caught by a personal whim or left to changing fads, but is anchored in the lived faith of that evolving community. The way Catholic schools consistently address the five calls of the mission statement makes them unique and essential to the life of our diocese. They are, indeed, our strongest and most reliable model of the church at large, living and growing together into the vision of Jesus which He called the Kingdom.
My prayer is that we may never lose our sense of appreciation of the gifts that have come from the church of the past and that we will never tire in reworking them for the church of today and tomorrow. If we do that, then indeed we will always be about the common journey of "Bringing the Vision to Life."
Most Reverend Michael A. Saltarelli
Bishop of Wilmington
January 24, 2002.