Catholic Education: Looking to the Future with Confidence and Hope

First, Jesus invited his disciples to follow him.  Then, before he ascended into heaven, he called them to be his witnesses, to bring his Gospel to the world.  That great commission is our call today, as we undertake the work of the New Evangelization, to deepen our Catholic faith, grow in conviction of its truth, and share it with others.

Five years after the publication of my 2008 pastoral letter, Catholic Education: Looking to the Future with Confidence, it seems appropriate to review how our Catholic schools in this local Church are serving our students and advancing the New Evangelization.  A new report, Catholic Education in the Archdiocese of Washington, 2008-2013, highlights what has been accomplished and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead as, together, we do all we can to enrich parish religious education for all ages, and ensure the viability of our Catholic schools for the future.

Like the first disciples, we know that witnessing to Christ’s love and truth is work we undertake together.  So, too, we must work together to strengthen our Catholic education in all its forms, from Catholic secondary and elementary schools, to parish religious education programs for children and adult faith formation programs, to sacramental preparation and youth and campus ministry.  The goal of all Catholic education is to encounter the risen Lord, to have our hearts transformed by his Gospel, and to share that Good News and help manifest God’s kingdom on earth.  Thus, the support of Catholic education is not an option – it is the responsibility of all of us.

My pastoral letter on education followed a 2007 archdiocesan gathering of catechists and then a Convocation of Catholic Education, where 500 parish and school leaders agreed on the need for strategic planning to strengthen and sustain our Catholic schools for the future based on the four pillars of Catholic identity, academic excellence, affordability and accessibility.

Following a series of visits to our parishes, in 2010 a new standards-based curriculum guide was developed to give parish catechists and Catholic school religion teachers a framework for what students at all grade levels need to know and understand about their Catholic faith so they can live and share it, now and in the future.

Expanded educational offerings for Catholic adults have been at the heart of our archdiocesan communications efforts that include blogs, e-letters and social media, and by parish and online courses, including “Living Catholic,” that provide a basic overview of the faith, and by the new “Faith Foundations” programs that offer a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of Catholic teaching.

New policies for our local Catholic schools were adopted in 2009 following an extensive consultation with over 12,000 people.  Key outcomes included fortifying Catholic identity and academic standards at all our schools. Through a new parish offertory assessment for Catholic education, all of our Catholics invest in our educational efforts, as a portion of offertory collections support their parish or regional Catholic school and archdiocesan tuition assistance.

As a result of this new program, archdiocesan tuition assistance has grown from $800,000 in 2007 to $5.5 million in tuition assistance being awarded to nearly 4,200 students and their families for the 2013-14 academic year.  In the past four years, the archdiocesan assistance program has awarded over $20 million to more than 15,000 recipients.

Our efforts to make Catholic education affordable and accessible have made a Catholic education possible for families in our city of Washington and in the surrounding suburbs and countryside, to give our students hope in Christ and hope in the future.  That mission is at the heart of all of our schools, including our four Consortium of Catholic Academies Schools in urban neighborhoods and at our archdiocesan high schools, Archbishop Carroll in the nation’s capital and Don Bosco Cristo Rey in Takoma Park.

Yet, we recognize that this help is not enough. This year, the demonstrated need by families who applied for tuition assistance to attend our Catholic schools was $40 million.  Thus, the report on the education pastoral letter’s five year anniversary underscores the need for all Catholics to support and advocate for publicly-funded scholarship programs like the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, and educational tax credits and business partnerships in Maryland.

To be the best Church we can be, we must work together to support our Catholic education in all its forms, and to continue to learn and grow in our faith so we can share it with others and meet the challenges of today’s world.  We are Jesus’ disciples and his witnesses today, and that is why we again look to the future with confidence and hope.