Archbishop Wuerl:“The Mission of Catholic Education Today”

October 06, 2007

Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl delivered the keynote address at the Archdiocese of Washington’s Convocation on Catholic Education, held October 5 at Trinity University in Washington, DC:

The Mission of Catholic Education Today

It is a pleasure to join all of you today for this archdiocesan-wide Convocation on Catholic Education and to greet you in the name of the archdiocese, where we can be so proud of our long-standing efforts at Catholic education.

At one of the schools, at the end of a gathering of the students which included the celebration of Mass and a presentation on their part, I was interviewed by a number of people, including the high school newspaper reporter. One of the secular reporters asked me, “What does the Church bring to our society?” The school newspaper reporter asked the same question, but in a more personal manner, “What does the Church bring to me?”

In the answer to that question we find the rationale for Catholic schools. The very name defines the educational effort. In this presentation I want to touch on the following points:

1) our Catholic identity
2) three qualities of our Catholic schools
3) principles of strategic planning: affordability and accessibility
4) the leadership role of all of our administrators, teachers and staff in our Catholic schools.

Catholic Identity

As we reflect on the Catholic identity of our schools, we find the answer to the question, “What does the Church bring to me?”

The Church brings to us today what it has brought to the world for 2,000 years. It brings us the encounter with Jesus. It offers us an invitation to faith. It proclaims Christ’s words of truth and life. It does this in a world not always prepared to hear and accept the message.

On a profoundly theological level what we participate in is that extraordinary work, the great commissioning, that Christ passed on to his Church. We are to go out and tell people the good news of Jesus Christ. In this we unite ourselves in a unique way to the mission of Jesus himself.

What makes our message so unique is the realization that it is God’s word. In his infinite freedom and love, God chose to speak to us, to human beings, and to pass onto us his message, his words.

God reveals himself to us through the events of salvation history and through the words of the prophets. Most of all, he has spoken to us through his Son, Jesus Christ. To this voice of God – his revelation – we are called to respond in an act of faith that professes “I believe because you are God who can neither deceive nor be deceived.”

How does the revelation of Christ get from him to us? How can we claim that we truly know Jesus? How is it possible that we can enter into the mystery of redemption, justification, new life and the new creation without some personal encounter with the Risen Lord?

The answer to the question of connectedness with Christ is found in the continuity that exists between the Church he established and the Gospel that is proclaimed today.

When Jesus opened the scroll in the synagogue and read from the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of his public ministry, he chose a messianic text. He then announced that the very works that were to herald the messianic kingdom were being done – fulfilled – right then and there, by his very presence and deeds.

Today, the Church with increasing insistence speaks of the need for an emphasis in our teaching / educational catechetical efforts on the divine pedagogy. As Jesus reminded his listeners in the synagogue, today is this Scripture being fulfilled in your presence. The example in the Acts of the Apostles in the preaching of both Peter and Paul shows us the divine pedagogy at work. There must be a proclamation of a transcendent reality that will give meaning to and interpret our human experiences.

At the heart of our Catholic schools is our Catholic faith. Most elementary Catholic schools are programs of a Catholic parish – a program that exists primarily to help form the young Catholic in his or her faith as they grow, not only in wisdom and age, but also in grace.

The Gospel describes our work in terms of the sower spreading seed in the hope that some will take root and bear good fruit. Every time we enter a classroom we can identify ourselves with the sower in the Gospel. We share in the work of the Word who came among us to help us know God and God’s love. We bring this message – this seed – to each student entrusted to our care.

The Gospel parable of the sower and the seed reminds us that the same dynamic is at work today. The seed is God’s word. We are the sowers. Yet for the seed to take hold, the ground must be prepared. We not only sow the seed, we till the soil.

If we identify ourselves with the image of Jesus the sower of the good seed and we envision ourselves walking alongside him, generously yet carefully spreading that seed, we need to ask ourselves, where do we find the seed?

It is the Church that continues in remembrance of Jesus both to proclaim his Gospel and also to break the bread and share the cup – the body and blood of the Lord – that makes present to us Christ in his death and Resurrection in a way that we can enter and live the mystery.

In answer to the question: What do we bring? We bring Christ in and through his Church.

Our ministry and teaching are in the name of and on behalf of the Church. Our communion with the Church’s teaching office verifies the truth of what we say. It is not ourselves but Jesus Christ we preach. Obviously it is not our word that authenticates what we proclaim. It is the teaching of the Church and our fidelity to it that gives a stamp of integrity to our proclamation.

A good teacher, in addition to proclaiming the Word, is also the living authentication of his or her word’s relationship to the Gospel through its continuity in the Church with Christ.

There is a sequence in which you and I are participants. As Jesus was the Word who came to reveal it, so we have received the Gospel which gives identity to our lives and calls us to be its heralds:

“The Church from the Apostles,
The Apostles from Christ,
Christ from God.”

Three Qualities of our Catholic Schools

If we speak in terms of what our Catholic schools offer, we can identify three specific realities that are integral to Catholic education: academic excellence, faith formation and the intangible reality of confidence in oneself and, therefore, hope for the future. The last of the three qualities is particularly significant when we deal with Catholic education in the inner city and urban centers where poverty, crime, violence and disintegration of family life are a part of the landscape.

Academic excellence must remain the hallmark of Catholic education. We boast, and rightfully so, that the students in our Catholic schools score higher on national tests than do children in public schools. This must continue to be a given.

I listened to a keynote speaker at the recent opening of one of our new schools talk about his experience as a temporary teacher in a public school. He related how discouraged he was to find that most of the students were already disengaged from the educational process because the quality of the education was so poor and the interest in challenging the student to do better was absent.

While we struggle to keep our schools open and strive to provide a tuition low enough to encourage students to attend, we must not, because of that, begin to allow our excellent academic instruction in any way to be diminished.

Since we are Catholic schools and we have already spoken at length about our identity, it goes without saying that coupled with academic excellence is strong faith formation.

Even in a school where the overriding majority of children are not Catholic, the program must remain Catholic. Faith formation is an identifying element of our Catholic schools. Whoever comes must be prepared to experience our vision of life and participate fully in the program to the extent that the program allows.

Because of the academic excellence and the faith formation, we are able to provide the student with the intangible ingredient we call self confidence and, therefore, hope. Many of our urban schools are an oasis of hope in an otherwise desert of intellectual, spiritual and personal support.

Once when I asked a student in one of our urban schools why he came to the school day in and day out so insistently, his response said it all. He declared, “I come to this school so I can get an education, so I can get a life.”

Catholic schools came into existence as part of the Church’s effort to provide our young men and women with an opportunity not only for academically excellent education, but a faith formation that will provide them a grounding in religious faith and values which will serve them the rest of their lives.

In the context of their education in a Catholic school, they are helped to ask the truly important questions of life and to receive meaningful answers on which they can build their lives. We approach our task and our students fully aware that all of us are immersed in a culture that offers alternate views, competing guidance and a direction in life that finds its inspiration elsewhere.

Catholic schools stand in the midst of this community as an integral part of the Catholic Church and its proclamation that Jesus is the answer to the truly significant questions of human life: How shall I live? What is the purpose of life? What are the values that should direct my steps through life?

A Catholic school offers a vision of belonging to something much larger than ourselves. We are a part of a larger spiritual family – the Church. Just as we are nurtured and grow within the confines of our natural family, so too do we develop and mature within the embrace of our spiritual family, the Church.

In our Catholic schools we nurture a community that recognizes that we are all children of God, that prays together and that learns and lives the meaning of respect for one another. We are a community that calls each other to the love of God and therefore the love of one another.

The school communities that all of us serve and of which we are a part are expressions of that communion or community of faith and spiritual conviction.

All of us should expect our Catholic schools to be different. Part of the reason they exist and why we work so hard to sustain them is because in them we should find a community that accepts values, that recognizes the importance of virtue, and that attempts to model what a good and just, caring and faithful society would be like.

Principles of Strategic Planning

When we begin systemically to look at Catholic education in our archdiocese, there are two guiding principles that I think we need to be very much aware of if we intend to develop a strategy to sustain Catholic education. A vision or strategic plan for Catholic education must revolve around the commitment to sustain affordable, accessible Catholic education within the limits possible.

We have already said a great deal about Catholic identity. We must now look at affordability and accessibility.

Affordability means that in a system of Catholic parochial schools, some unified manner of working has to be developed so that the cost of supporting a Catholic parochial school is more equitably distributed beyond the boundaries of the parish. The equitable distribution of the cost of Catholic education should be across the entire archdiocese. Unless some unified plan is developed, parishes simply run the risk of having schools close one by one as they run out of financial capability. In this manner, soon the only places with Catholic schools will be the areas wealthy enough to sustain them on their own.

Affordability within an archdiocese could take the form of an assessment of parishes without schools that could be distributed to parishes with schools. Another way of achieving affordability is to establish an archdiocesan-wide tuition assistance fund. It would complement an across-the-board tuition cost that would be far closer to the actual education cost. The difference for those who cannot afford the tuition could be made up through a tuition assistance program.

Personally, I am persuaded that a strong archdiocesan-wide tuition assistance plan for those who cannot afford a higher tuition, coupled with a reasonable expectation that those who can pay the full tuition would do so, is the best – tried and proven – road to stability and strength among our Catholic elementary schools.

Around the country there are various examples of how such mechanisms can work. What is important is that there be some equitable distribution of the cost of Catholic education across the archdiocese that allows for the actual cost to the student/family to be affordable. The difference between that affordable cost and the actual cost of education needs to be made up from other sources including archdiocesan grants, but most effectively, from tuition assistance sources.

Accessibility is another essential ingredient to sustain Catholic education today. In effect, accessibility means that across the archdiocese the effort to preserve schools should focus on the geographical location of the schools to ensure that throughout the archdiocese there are schools strategically located that verify the claim of accessibility. There should be the reasonable hope for most Catholic children to be able to get to a Catholic school in a given general area.

The importance of this principle is to ensure that where limited funds exist to support Catholic education they be concentrated in areas where, should the school close, there would be no available Catholic education.

Given the limited resources that are available within the Church, our working principles in attempting to foster and enlarge Catholic education must therefore include these three: 1) the school must be Catholic, through and through; 2) an archdiocesan-wide policy for equitable distribution of educational costs must be developed to maintain affordability; and 3) that serious archdiocesan-wide strategic planning has to take place to ensure the survival of schools in a manner that allows Catholic education to truly be accessible throughout the archdiocese.


In concluding these remarks, I want to say a few words about the heart of our Catholic educational efforts – the teachers.

The teacher is the storyteller of the faith family. We begin to share when we tell others of Jesus. We live and talk in such a manner that the truth of what we proclaim inspires others to accept and follow the Lord. This is the primary role of the teacher — to tell the story of Jesus with such conviction and with such witness power that others want to follow him. Faith begins with this witness.

When we walk into the classroom we recognize that there is a great diversity of ground before us. We find hearts and minds and souls in various stages of openness to the message. But we are also aware that what we bring is truly life-giving seed and that Christ is with us, both as the sower and the seed.

It is not lightly that we take the command to participate in the very mystery of the Word becoming flesh as we undertake our teaching effort, realizing that in what we do it is both Christ working with us and Christ in the message we proclaim.

Even those who do not share our faith come to Catholic schools because they know that at their heart there is the acceptance of values motivated by our faith/values that present a specific vision or view of human life. In our Catholic schools, Christ is the teacher and he is also the lesson to be learned.

Not all of the seed sown in the Gospel parable yielded fruit. The ground on which the seed falls has to be carefully prepared.

Today we recognize in our secular and heavily materialistic culture, with its focus on the here and now, that the answer that we bring to life is often overcome by the noise around us. The city of man threatens at times to engulf the city of God.

In the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in the heart of Rome, not far from the Pantheon, there is a statue of Christ by Michelangelo. It is reputed to be an earlier work of his and the legend surrounding it tells us that a young student of Michelangelo asked him how it was possible to create such a beautiful and moving likeness of Christ. According to the story, Michelangelo, with an understanding smile and the modesty of genius, replied: “It was simple. I took the block of marble and simply chipped away everything that was not Christ.” Is that not what we try to do everyday in our institutions for Catholic education?

To all of the young who come with questions, aspirations and hopes, we provide the vision, the tools, the guidance, direction and inspiration to chip away at everything that is not Christ and his Gospel in their lives and in the world around them so that, ultimately, the finished product of their life, whenever that will be, will look a lot like Christ.

May we always be conscious of the gift of God’s grace at work within us, the transforming power of God’s Holy Spirit and our ability to manifest God’s kingdom, the city of God, in our lives, our families, our schools, our community, our world. More information is online.

Susan Gibbs
Director of Communications
[email protected]