Wisdom for Another School Year

As my holy namesake proclaimed, “It is good for us to be here” (Mt 17:4). So, what are we facing in our upcoming Catholic school year? Our Catholic Education Foundation has received consistent input from teachers, administrators, parents, and bishops that most priests either do not know or fail to comprehend the critical importance of Catholic schools in the life of the Church, particularly as a vehicle of the new evangelization.

I recall the 2014 presentations of Archbishop George Lucas and Bishop Daniel Flores at the fall meeting of the USCCB. After noting that “the Bishop and the Pastor have an important role” in Catholic school maintenance and development, Bishop Flores remarked that to many, this may sound like a “throw-away” line. Unfortunately, that is not the case as all too many clerics over the past three decades have grown weary with the struggle to keep our schools viable, appealing and accessible. If it is true that “personnel is policy,” then the next statement of Bishop Flores is key: “As Bishops, we must make every effort to assign pastors to parishes with schools who are champions of Catholic schools.”

My own experience offers yet another dimension, namely, that the majority of the “junior clergy” are most supportive of Catholic schools, yet they do not know exactly what they can or should be doing to advance the cause, either because they did not attend Catholic schools themselves or they went in an era when clerical involvement was low or even non-existent.

In fact, a very interesting study surfaced four years ago on the attitudes of seminarians toward our schools; it was both encouraging and disturbing. Encouraging, in that — unlike an older generation of priests — they are quite supportive of Catholic schools. Disturbing, in that they say they have been given no tools in the seminary to prepare them for any role in the schools.

My entire priestly life and ministry has been lived in and through the apostolate of Catholic education. How did that happen? Permit me to be a bit autobiographical.

When it came time for my parents to enroll their only child in school, they were determined that a Catholic school was the only option. Now, that was not unusual in the 1950s, except that my parents were not typical: they had not attended Catholic schools themselves; they were not married in the Church; they had not been to Mass for years. Why they were so adamant about my schooling was a question I never got answered. Of course, the real answer is Divine Providence. Allow three anecdotes to flesh that out.

Episode 1: On registration day for kindergarten, my mother brought me to St. Rose of Lima School in Newark, New Jersey. Registration in those days called for four documents: the child’s birth and baptismal certificates; his inoculation certificate; the parents’ marriage certificate. Sister Matthew Joseph dutifully checked off each one my mother presented and then said, “And lastly, Mrs. Stravinskas, your marriage certificate?” To which my feisty mother replied, “I didn’t bother bringing it; you wouldn’t accept it, anyway.” “Ah, then we’ll have to work on that!” came Sister’s response.

Episode 2: As an only child, I was excited to begin school. When I came home the first day, my mother asked: “How was school?” “Great.” “How was Sister?” “Great.” “How were the other kids?” “Great.” “Did you learn anything?” “Yes. I learned what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a monsignor!” “Huh?” “Monsignor Gormley came to class to welcome us to school. I think that’s the sharpest outfit I’ve ever seen.” As you can see, many decades later, that still hasn’t happened.

Episode 3: As Sister Rita Gertrude was preparing us for our first confession, I came home one day and hugged my mother and said, “Mommy, I love you very much.” “I love you, too.” “Well, I’ve got a question: If I die and go to Heaven, and you and Daddy aren’t there, would that still be Heaven?” “Why wouldn’t Daddy and I be in Heaven?” “Because Sister said” — that magical line settled every argument in every Catholic home in those days — “Sister said that people who don’t go to Mass on Sunday go to Hell when they die.” “Go have your milk and cookies.”

When my father got home, my mother blurted out: “We have a problem with the kid” (I never knew my name until I went to school). “What kind of problem? He’s always been teacher’s pet.” At which point, I was directed to my room, so that they could have a private conversation (a most unusual phenomenon in an only-child home). With my ear to the door, I heard my mother go on: “That nun told him that we’re going to Hell because we don’t go to Mass on Sunday.” Now, please note that I did not say that Sister said my parents were going to Hell, nor did Sister say that. However, my mother made the appropriate application. By second grade, I should mention, my mother was a full-time volunteer at school (once the nuns made their mark, there was no release!). So, my mother continued with my father: “When I go to school tomorrow, I’m going to tell that nun to keep her nose out of our home.” My father said, “Well, you can do that but I’m not sure how much that would accomplish. I think there’s a simpler solution. I think it would easier for you and me to start going to Mass than it would be to convince Sister Rita that we’re not going to Hell.” And the rest is history.

An interesting aside: My fifth-grade teacher, Sister Regina Rose, declared infallibly, to my mother (we all thought that it was the nuns who had the real charism of infallibility): “I can tell you three things about Peter’s future: He will be a priest; he will be a teacher; he will be a writer.” Not bad for having 70+ kids in the class, to boot. Sister Regina went to God just two months ago — at the age of 108!

So, by a process which I like to call “reverse evangelization,” through the parish school, I brought my parents back to a practice of the faith and also found my vocation at that very tender age. That’s why I am so committed to the school apostolate — because I know that what the school did for me and my family, it can still do for countless others today; and it does.

In the post-Vatican II age, what has been called the “age of the laity,” who could forget Newman’s retort to his bishop when asked about the place of the laity in the Church: “The Church would look foolish without them.” An uncharacteristically laconic response for Newman. Which leads to the next question: If the Church would look foolish without the laity, what kind of laity would redound to her edification and effectiveness? Again, Newman tells us in that well-known desideratum of his:

I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity. . .

And what will such a “well-instructed laity” accomplish? In words presaging what Pope John Paul II would identify as “the new evangelization,” we read:

And one immediate effect of your being able to do all this will be your gaining that proper confidence in self which is so necessary for you. You will then not even have the temptation to rely on others, to court political parties or particular men; they will rather have to court you. You will no longer be dispirited or irritated . . . at finding difficulties in your way, in being called names, in not being believed, in being treated with injustice. You will fall back upon yourselves; you will be calm, you will be patient. Ignorance is the root of all littleness . . .

However, how is one to get this “well-instructed laity” to bring about St. John Paul’s “new evangelization,” that living and preaching of the Gospel in formerly Christian lands? We have the answer in Newman’s establishment of the Catholic University of Ireland, to be sure, but likewise (and even especially) in his founding of the Oratory School in Birmingham.

Our Catholic schools are more important than ever. It must be admitted that out-of-school religious education programs are an abject failure. To be honest, how could any such program even hope to undo the damage done by thirty hours a week of government education, or more accurately, indoctrination? We priests must say some very potentially unpopular things, for instance, that attendance at the government schools (the so-called “public” schools) places the souls of children in jeopardy — a point highlighted in a study four years ago, which documented that Catholic children in the state schools most often lose their faith in God and the Church as early as fourth grade, due to the type of science classes they experience. And when we begin to consider topics related to marriage, family and sexuality, the need for Catholic schools becomes even more obvious. The aggressive promotion of “gender theory” and “critical race theory” in government schools across our nation should give any intelligent parent reason to make the local Catholic school the educational home for one’s children. Concern has been raised lately about the so-called “Nones”; I believe the rise of the “Nones” is in direct proportion to the decline in the Catholic school population.

Further, there is the often very neuralgic piece of the whole project: The priest must challenge parental priorities. Is a winter vacation more important than a Catholic education for one’s children? So, Reverend Fathers, you are the ones most responsible for the success or failure of a school. In one of Cardinal Newman’s lectures which became his Idea of a University, he makes the point that without the presence of the “institutional” Church in the life of a Catholic university, the project is bound to lose its moorings. That is equally true of Catholic education at the elementary and secondary levels. In the 1970s, it was not uncommon for “liberated” nuns to tell priests they were not welcome in the schools and that their only role was to pay the bills. Many priests of that generation became quite embittered and harbor those resentments to this day.

With the absence of priests, orthodoxy and Catholic identity waned in many places, leading to a further crisis in the schools. The mass exodus of women religious from the schools is yet another reason why the presence of priests is so critical today.

The involvement of a priest, however, is not simply or even primarily that of a watchdog: His involvement is needed to provide pastoral support for faculty and administration; to teach religion or other subjects according to his abilities; to be part of the lives of the students on the playground, in the cafeteria, at social and athletic events and, of course, for sacramental/liturgical services.

Not a few bishops — precipitously and very foolishly, in my opinion — withdrew priests from high school work, yet the presence of priests there provided one of the most effective “recruitment” devices we ever had for priestly vocations. Dioceses that have kept priests there — or which are putting them back — know that.

Are our schools perfect? Of course not. However, if you have an institution, you can improve it; without an institution, nothing is possible. This entire endeavor is is a great burden, to be sure, but the Master Teacher assured us that, ultimately, His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Mt 11:30). We also stand in a long line of priestly, saintly educators: John Neumann, Joseph Calasanz, Jean Baptist de la Salle, John Bosco, John Henry Newman, to name but a few. During these days, let us claim our right to call on this “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) to inspire us.

I always say that a teacher, a parent, or a priest must develop the mentality of the long-distance runner. What do I mean? It is rare to see immediate results for our efforts. Sometimes the affirmation comes years later; sometimes, not at all. Cardinal Newman reminds us of our uniqueness and purpose in the sight of God. Do you recall those stirring first words of his meditation on that theme? “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission.” He ends that reflection by reminding us that God “knows what He is about.”

An essential dimension of that mission which the good God has given us priests is the holy munus of teaching the youngest of His flock about Him. What a dignity! What a grace! What a responsibility! With St. Paul, I pray: “May the God who has begun this good work in you — in us — bring it to completion” (Ph 1:6).


This essay was originally delivered as a sermon preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., during the Solemn Vespers to open the seventh annual conference on the role of priests in today’s Catholic schools, sponsored by the Catholic Education Foundation, on 13 July 2021, at Our Lady of Florida Spiritual Center in North Palm Beach, Florida.

Avatar About Fr. Peter Stravinskas

Fr. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization providing financial assistance to Catholic high school students and serving as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.