The Catholic Identity of our Catholic Schools
Once when I visited one of our Catholic schools, on a particularly cold and blustery day, I asked the assembled students, “Why would you be here on such a miserable day?” One fourth-grader stood with great pride and answered, “I come to this school so that I can get a life.” His schoolmates nodded and applauded.
This enthusiastic youngster is exactly right. Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington, as elsewhere, exist to give others a life through formation of the whole person, including that all-important dimension of the spirit, by providing in particular an encounter with the transcendent, with the One who is “the way, the truth and the life” – Jesus Christ (John 14:6). It is not only the young students who are blessed by this encounter, but parents, teachers and administrators too.
Today we begin Catholic Schools Week. This annual celebration in the archdiocese and throughout the nation offers us a special time to highlight the value and uniqueness of our Catholic schools, where young people find academic success as they develop the gifts God has given them to build a better future not only for themselves, but for all of society.
What defines our Catholic schools is a focus on faith formation, academic excellence, moral development, and a strong sense of service. Rooted in the teaching mission of the Church, these places of learning are as diverse as the communities they serve. Students come from the city, suburbs and rural communities, and from families that are financially wealthy, middle income, and some live in poverty. There are also about 3,000 teachers who each and every day both instruct and provide the witness of faith to students, as well as many more administrators and support staff. Each plays a crucial role in the mission of our schools.
Implicit in the notion of Catholic schools is a strong Catholic identity, which manifests itself in an environment permeated by the spirit of the Gospel, visible communion and cooperation with the Church, both universal and local, fidelity to Catholic teaching, and a vibrant sacramental life. Notwithstanding many cultural and legal pressures to change, longstanding policies are in place here to ensure that the schools in the archdiocese remain Catholic. Our schools are committed to seeing that the revealed truth given to us by Jesus Christ is lived out on a daily basis in classroom lessons, daily prayer, service programs, school expectations, extra-curricular activities and, just as importantly, the personal witness of teachers, administrators and support staff.
Parents are thankful, as I am, for this faithful witness by those involved in the operation of our schools. Parents expect Catholic schools to be different, to be distinguishable from secular ones. That is precisely why they have chosen our schools. They want an authentic Catholic experience that provides not only excellent academics, but the moral and faith-based tools that will help their children to succeed in life.
Those who serve in our Catholic schools want this too and, in recent months, they have taken the opportunity explicitly to reaffirm their commitment to strengthening the Catholic identity of our schools through participation in various programs and special commissioning ceremonies. They know that it is particularly through setting a good example in their own way of life, through their own personal witness, that students encounter the transforming love of Jesus Christ.
Students and parents know that in the nurturing home that is a Catholic school, every child matters. Recognizing that parents are properly the primary educators of their children, it is clear why there is so much support for legislative efforts to empower parents to make educational choices for their children in addition to the substantial financial aid we provide ourselves through the Archdiocesan Tuition Assistance Program and other initiatives. In particular, we recognize the efforts of the District of Columbia Catholic Conference and so many others who work together for reauthorization of the highly successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and the engagement of the Maryland Catholic Conference in supporting the enactment of the Maryland Education Credit, for which surveys show high public support.
As we look to the future, we should do so with hope, confidence and enthusiasm, knowing that Catholic schools work. These communities of faith, knowledge and service are a blessing for the students who attend them, their families, the Church and the greater community. As we celebrate with joy the gift of Catholic schools this week, I ask that you join me in thanking all those who make our schools such wonderful manifestations of the kingdom of God. Let us also renew our commitment to work together so that our Catholic educational community continues to thrive.