Bishops consider ways to revitalize appeal of a Catholic education

WASHINGTON — Catholic bishops are looking to "transform" Catholic schools in response to decades of declining enrollment that has forced hundreds of schools to close since 2005.

The effort, said the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Catholic Education, encompasses a wide-ranging look at issues facing Catholic schools and a renewed effort to help parents better understand that the spiritual development of a child goes hand in hand with academic achievement.

"The concern of the bishops is that Catholic schools are valuable, Catholic schools transform lives," said Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio. "It's not only talking about academics. It's not only a matter of discipline, but it's a matter of preparing the whole person for college and for heaven."

In an interview with Catholic News Service following a meeting Jan. 17-18 at USCCB headquarters that included 30 bishops, educators and representatives of Catholic education organizations, Bishop Murry said the goal is to ensure that Catholic schools will remain a vibrant and important part of family and Church life.

Sponsored by the University of Notre Dame, the meeting was the sixth in a series since 2009 looking at the future of Catholic education.

Forming the backdrop are sobering statistics on school closings and declining enrollment.

The bishops and educators focused on four trends during the meeting:

• The changing relationship across Catholic school leadership including those between bishop and pastors, pastors and principals, and principals and teachers.

• The evolving landscape of Catholic school governance as more advisory boards of lay leaders take shape.

• Expanding access to Catholic schools through educational choice.

• Charter school expansion.

Also underlying the bishops' concerns are shifting demographics, tuition costs and changes in the practice of the faith, all of which influence whether parents decide to enroll their children in Catholic schools.

Bishop Murry said the simple message that Catholic schools transform lives must become the Church's basic refrain.

"Many parents don't see particular value in the religious formation that occurs in a Catholic school," Bishop Murry said. "So how can we challenge some of those ideas so people come to a better understanding of why it is important to develop the entire person?"

Pastors, he explained, are diligently working to bring parents into parish schools to see firsthand the advantages a Catholic education has in developing the "whole person."

"Pastors with parishes with schools, pastors with parishes without schools, parish school of religion directors have been working together to say it is a genuine value for the future to train the whole person, not just the mind or the body — the mind academically, the body in sports — but also to develop the spiritual life," the bishop told Catholic News Service.

"Unfortunately, we live in a very secular society. We are blessed that we're not as secular as many of the countries in Europe. But we are a very secular society, and fewer and fewer people see the value of that spiritual development. I think that becomes the task of evangelization. Just programs to get people into church are not enough. We have to change hearts."

As for rising tuition, Bishop Murry suggested two approaches. The first involves helping parents realize that 27 states and the District of Columbia have legislation providing financial assistance to parents who choose private or faith-based schools.

The second requires school leaders and clergy "to be courageous and undaunted in going to donors, people whose lives have been positively affected by Catholic schools and have been blessed with economic security ... and ask them to give back to Catholic schools," he said.

"(We have) to get them involved, to not be afraid to talk to them and say we need your help in maintaining these schools," Bishop Murry added.

Bishop Murry said that even the most successful charter schools are not a substitute for Catholic schools, "where the whole atmosphere is an atmosphere of living faith."

The work ahead is expected to take time to unfold. Bishop Murry said. He hopes that regional or statewide gatherings of bishops will undertake the question of transforming Catholic schools. He also said another national gathering to discuss progress would be beneficial.

"It was an excellent meeting," he said of two-day gathering. "The conversation was very, very good, very frank, and, I think, very helpful in terms of mapping out a plan to go forward into the future in revitalizing our schools." 

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