This is the seventh in a series of columns on the importance of giving all Catholic kids a Catholic education (Part one, Part two, Part three, Part four, Part five, Part six.) Over the last six columns, I have explored the idea that all Catholic kids deserve a thoroughly and authentically Catholic education. The focus has been on what individual families can do to ensure this happens, regardless of the types of schools their children attend. Here I'll expand my focus to the entire Catholic community because, like sunrise after a dark night, a beautiful possibility has arisen in my mind.
This dawning thought is simply that giving Catholic kids a Catholic education is not only the responsibility of individual families, but of the entire Catholic community. A brighter possibility even yet is that educating our children in the ways of the Faith will benefit not only individual families, but also entire parish families. And the brightest possibility of all: renewing our communal commitment to Catholic education could be the key to revitalizing the heart of Catholicism in each of our dioceses across the United States.
Now, you may think that I am a dreamer, that to suggest a dawning of spiritual renewal is naïve in light of the harsh reality that Catholic churches are closing all around us. You may think that the sunny days of affordable Catholic schools have already hopelessly faded away, but I am not dreaming. I am wide-awake with the hope of a "new springtime of evangelization" as Pope John Paul II referred to the great possibilities awaiting the Church in the third millennium. In his 1990 encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, he wrote, "I wish to invite the Church to renew her missionary commitment. For missionary activity renews the Church, revitalizes faith and Christian identity, and offers fresh enthusiasm and new incentive. Faith is strengthened when it is given to others!" If I am but a dreamer in proposing that the key to wholesale renewal of the Faith in our diocese could be our communal recommitment to giving all Catholic kids a Catholic education, then let me dream with John Paul the Great who invites us to experience renewal through missionary zeal, self-discipline, and community giving.
Let me also dream with the United States Roman Catholic bishops of the late1800s who dreamed big enough to decree that every Catholic Church in the land should have a parish school. They took on this Goliath-sized task because they believed that educating the immigrant Catholic population was the way to preserve the Faith and to help their flock survive in America. Have our ideals for our children changed so much since the 1880s? The current U.S. bishops do not think so. In 2005 they renewed their commitment to the Catholic educational ideals by saying that, "The burden of supporting our Catholic grammar and high schools can no longer be placed exclusively on the individual parishes that have schools and on parents who pay tuition. The future of Catholic school education depends on the entire Catholic community."
Should the Pope, several bishops' councils, and I still be viewed as dreamers, let me reveal that about 2,000 miles southeast of the Diocese of Fall River, MA, where I live, some visionary Catholics have made the dream of community revitalization through Catholic schooling a reality. Not only have the 120,000 Catholics of the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas provided tuition-free Catholic schools for all children of active parishioners since 1993, approximately 70 percent attend Mass weekly, and 100 percent of the families with children in the schools are active in parish life. I promise, I am not making this up. In the county that contains the City of Wichita, the median family income is slightly less that that of Bristol County, MA, in my diocese of Fall River. There are 91 parishes with 10,600 students enrolled at 61 schools in the Kansas diocese. How does this compare with the Fall River diocese? Catholics in my diocese number approximately 357,000. We have 96 parishes with 8,700 students in 32 schools. By the numbers, we should be able to supply three times as many students with tuition-free Catholic educations as Wichita can, but we are not. Instead, unfortunately, student enrollment is dropping and Catholic schools are being closed.
The example of Wichita Catholics should make us all dreamers. It should challenge Catholics across the country to ask ourselves, "If they can do it, why can't we?" In addition to our local Catholic grammar schools and high schools, there are hundreds of Catholic colleges and universities, and even more Catholic organizations ministering to students at secular colleges and universities across the country. Each of these places and people could use our financial support, too. If a missionary-style commitment to giving all Catholic kids a Catholic school education was the key to revitalizing the faith life of each of our dioceses, and the faith life of Catholics across the USA, here's my final question, "What would we be willing to do, as individuals and as a community, to bring about this 'new springtime'?"