Taking Our Catholic Schools Seriously (January 2018, Christ is our Hope)

When I visit our schools, I sometimes tell the students that I went to Catholic schools for 25 years. They just stare at me in response. I don’t know whether they think I was a particularly slow student, a glutton for punishment, or what.

Whatever else my lengthy educational career did for me, it left me a champion of Catholic education. When I was young, Catholic education was taken for granted. Almost every Catholic child went to Catholic elementary
and secondary school. Almost every parish had its own school. The life blood of these schools was religious sisters and sometimes brothers and priests.

Of course, much has changed. Catholic families are smaller on average. Very few religious personnel are available for teaching. The cost has increased significantly. Many parents, for a variety of reasons, choose public education. A school attached to the parish is no longer viewed as a sine qua non, including by many pastors. As a result, a number of schools have closed or been consolidated in recent years, and others are at risk.

Sometimes, prudence dictates that we bow to social trends and move on. In other situations, bucking the trend is warranted. I’m not a betting man, and I don’t pretend to be able to predict the future. But I am committed to promoting and shoring up Catholic education in the Diocese of Joliet.

Accordingly, I have assembled a task force of 12 people (seemed like a propitious number) to work with me on evaluating and planning for our schools into the future. The group includes four individuals with extensive
experience as Catholic educators: Brother James Gaffney (a Christian brother, just retired after many years as president of Lewis University); Sister Mary Paul (a Dominican who teaches at DePaul University after many years
as a school administrator); Dr. Sandy Renehan (recently retired principal
of All Saints Academy in Naperville); and Mr. Terry Granger (president of the
Bishop McNamara schools in Kankakee and principal of Bishop McNamara High School).

There are two former members of our diocesan School Board: Mrs. Mary Ann McLean and Mr. John Narcissi, and Mr. John Vrdolyak, who has done committee work for the School Board. Mr. Mike Cabrera is the current vicechairperson of our Catholic Education Foundation board. At one time Mr. John Janicik chaired the diocesan Pastoral Council and the diocesan Finance Council. Mrs. Claudia Molina is very active in her parish, works for the Aurora Public Schools and is the parent of children who attend public schools. Rounding out the task force are two priests with extensive experience with Catholic schools: Father William Dewan and Father Don McLaughlin.

Father John Belmonte, S.J., superintendent of schools, will be very engaged with the task force, as will I.

So, what is the task of the task force? We are starting with the proposition that Catholic schools remain the best option for Catholic parents to help fulfill their responsibility of forming their children in the faith. Not the only option, and it is always the right of parents to make the choice. But we believe it is difficult to equal the positive impact on a young person spending five days a week for 12 or more years in the environment of a Catholic school.

One significant issue will be to strengthen the spiritual mission of our schools, the very reason for their existence. The task force will also be looking at finances, personnel, structure, the role of parents, pastors and others, marketing, and enrollment. There are no predetermined conclusions, and, obviously, we will need to seek out the views of many other people.

I don’t know if the result will be some grand master plan for our schools or some targeted strategies. The outcomes I would like to see are strengthened mission, increased enrollment (especially among Hispanics and other ethnic groups in the Church), financial stability, greater engagement of parents (especially in the religious formation of their children), and a clear delineation of the place of schools in the overall apostolate of the parishes and diocese.

It’s a big task. I am grateful to the 12 task force members and Father Belmonte for accepting the challenge to work with me. We need a lot of prayers and support. We don’t have 25 years to get this done!