Taking Stewardship of Catholic Schools, The Anchor, January 31, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
The Anchor
January 31, 2014

One of the joys I’ve had over the past few years has been traveling to various dioceses to preach retreats and facilitate convocations for fellow priests. Such occasions expose me quite a bit to how similar things are handled from place to place.

While much of what pastors do stays the same wherever they minister, one of the largest areas of disparity among dioceses concern the administrative and financial responsibilities of parishes that priests must oversee.

Many of the differences I discover leave me saying, “Thank God I’m a priest of the Diocese of Fall River!”

But in a few areas I can’t help but say to myself, “We should be doing that, too!”

One of the most conspicuous areas is with regard to Catholic education, something that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit during Catholic Schools Week.

A few years ago I was in the Diocese of Wichita, which is teeming with vocations to the priesthood and religious life and features top notch programs for high schoolers, collegians, and young adults that solicit huge and enthusiastic responses.

In talking with priests about their diocese’s remarkable vitality, they told me, “It all begins with our Catholic schools.”

Throughout the Diocese of Wichita, Catholic education is free. No Catholic youngster needs to pay a penny to attend any of the 38 schools and four Catholic high schools. It’s funded entirely by the generosity of parishioners through the Sunday offertory. Wichita, by the way, isn’t exactly Newport or Greenwich in terms of per capita income. The clergy and faithful of Wichita, however, have made an enormous commitment to Catholic education.

All Catholics are asked to tithe a percentage of their income in order to make it possible for every young Catholic, rich or poor, to receive a Catholic education. The vast majority of Catholics make that sacrifice in order to pass on the faith to the younger generations, including to burgeoning numbers of impoverished Hispanic immigrants. Parishes with schools often spend 80 to 90 percent of their budget to make Catholic education free, accessible and excellent. Parishes without schools commit to paying the entire tuition of their young parishioners to attend nearby Catholic schools. Churches in particularly poor areas get help from a Diocesan St. Katherine Drexel Fund, to help them meet their budgets beyond what their parishioners can sacrifice.

Since all Catholics are sacrificing for Catholic schools, even if they no longer have any children or grandchildren attending, many are willing to volunteer in schools to save money to use it for programs, facilities and salaries. The massive investment also keeps Catholic identity in the schools robust. In order to be able to attend the schools for free, Catholic families need to be committed and active stewards in their parish. Non-Catholics who accept the strong Catholic identity of the school are welcome to attend, with their families’ paying a tuition that is slightly below per pupil costs.

It’s a model of how Catholics in a diocese prioritize Catholic education and form disciples for the future.

In various other dioceses I’ve visited, while Catholic education isn’t free, every parish without a school is assessed a major percentage of the offertory — often 25 to 40 percent — to subsidize Catholic schools elsewhere in the Diocese, something that keeps tuitions affordable, pays just salaries, funds fund capital improvements and the building of new schools. It also means that every parish is necessarily highly invested in forming the next generation of believers. For that reason, the gift of a Catholic education is regularly promoted at all parishes, facilitating a culture in which all Catholic families are urged to take advantage of an affordable, excellent Catholic education for their children.

In our Diocese, the only parishes that are similarly invested in Catholic education are those that still have parish elementary schools attached to them, which are less than a quarter of our Diocese’s parishes. Regional  schools administered by the Diocese or the five Catholic High Schools receive no direct funding from parishes.

The only regular commitment those parishes without schools are required to make is to give a $300 annual subsidy to students from the parish who are attending one of the 19 Catholic elementary schools. Several parishes do more than what is required, and some also offer financial assistance for students to attend one of five Catholic high schools, but all of this is paltry compared to what happens in those dioceses where parishes without schools give massive chunks of their offertory to support Catholic education.

The St. Mary’s Education Fund that our Diocese has established is a great help to families in financial need to receive partial scholarships to attend Catholic schools — and indirectly assists schools by increasing student enrollment — but it’s nowhere near enough to remedy the fundamental economic problems facing most parochial schools.

Adopting a parish offertory model of support for Catholic Schools here would likely create short-term financial distress for parishes already struggling to meet budgets. But there are ways that all Catholics, including those in parishes without schools and without relatives in schools, could support Catholic schools without harming parish bottom lines.

The first would be to have a diocesan-wide second collection once or twice a year to support Catholic Schools in the Diocese.

A second would be to do a campaign similar to the Catholic Charities Appeal (CCA) specifically to support Catholic education. Just like the CCA helps everyone grasp how much need there is for the excellent spiritual and social services that the CCA funds, so a similar campaign for Catholic education would not only provide necessary financial support for the Catholic schools, but it would also dramatically increase awareness of the indispensable importance of Catholic schools among all Catholics.

The inescapable reality is that the future of the Catholic Church in our country is highly dependent on the prevalence and quality of Catholic Schools today and tomorrow. That’s why all Catholics and all Catholic parishes need to be urged to take genuine stewardship of them. As Catholic schools go, so goes the Church.