My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
Sunday, Jan. 22 at 2 p.m. marks the opening of the preliminary phase of the diocesan synod with a prayer service at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield. In the months ahead during this calendar year of 2017, our diocesan synod will consider how we can make a communal commitment as a diocesan community of clergy and laity regarding discipleship and stewardship as a way of life. Closely related to this will be for us to look at how we can foster community-wide support of Catholic education so that more students will be able to attend Catholic schools.
It is fitting that we give greater consideration to the importance of Catholic education as we celebrate Catholic Schools Week from Jan. 29 to Feb. 4. The theme for the National Catholic Schools Week 2017 is “Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service.” The theme encompasses several concepts that are at the heart of a Catholic education. First, schools are communities — small families in their own right, but also members of the larger community of home, church, city and nation. Faith, knowledge and service are three measures by which any Catholic school can and should be judged.
Schools typically observe the annual celebration week with Masses, open houses and other activities for students, families, parishioners and community members. Through these events, schools focus on the value Catholic education provides to young people and its contributions to our church, our communities and our nation.
As part of these Catholic Schools Week observances, I will celebrate an All Schools Mass for Decatur area schools at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Decatur on Tuesday, Jan. 31, at 10 a.m. Later that day at 12:30 p.m., I will do a video chat with students of our seven Catholic high schools in our diocese.
On Wednesday, Feb. 1 at 10:30 a.m., I will be at St. Boniface Parish in Edwardsville for Mass for St. Boniface School, followed by visiting the students in their classrooms.
On Thursday, Feb. 2 at 1:20 p.m., I will celebrate Mass for the students of Marquette Catholic High School and the local Catholic grade schools at St. Mary Church in Alton.
I have been personally blessed to have experienced Catholic education at a variety of Catholic schools during my lifetime. In all of my experiences of Catholic education as a student, teacher, pastor and bishop, I have been edified by the dedication of the faculty, benefactors, parishioners, parents and students, whose hard work and sacrifices make our Catholic schools the great treasure that they are.
At the same time, our Catholic schools face some significant challenges, not the least of which is financial. When I was in grade school, the religious sisters were essentially volunteer labor, working for a small stipend along with room and board in the parish convent. As the number of religious sisters teaching in our Catholic schools diminished over the years, they have been replaced by lay teachers who willingly make the sacrifice of working for a lower salary than their public-school counterparts, but who still must be paid a just wage. As these labor costs have increased, so has the tuition. Even though our parishes subsidize a sizeable portion of the per-student cost of education, the financial burden for parents has risen substantially.
The downside of this increased financial cost of Catholic schools is what I call a consumer mentality of Catholic education. By that, I mean looking at Catholic education as a product that parents buy for their children. But even public schools are not funded that way: everyone pays taxes for public schools whether they have children in the schools or not, because education of the young is everyone’s civic responsibility. Similarly, Catholic education must be seen not just as the financial burden of the parents who send their children to Catholic schools, but rather as the responsibility of the entire Catholic community to hand on the Catholic faith to the next generation of believers. The challenge of how to do that will be an important topic for our diocesan synod. Please pray that the Holy Spirit will guide the discussions of our diocesan synod and that God will bless the future well-being of our Catholic schools.
Another observance that we should note is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity from Jan. 18-25. The theme of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is “Reconciliation — The Love of Christ Compels Us” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:14-20). As this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation begun by Martin Luther, we pray for healing of the subsequent deep divisions which afflicted the church, so that all may be one as Christ our Lord wishes.
May God give us this grace. Amen.