The growth of the Catholic schools in this country really received its impetus from the Plenary Councils of Baltimore in the late 1880’s. In the Third Council of Baltimore it was decreed that every parish must have a parish school. It was also suggested that these schools were to be free for every child. It was the duty of the whole parish to support this educational initiative and to make this a priority for the parish community. At the same time there were emerging religious communities of men and women who undertook the task of providing the staffing for these schools at little compensation other than a roof over their heads and food to eat. The population that was being served was basically an immigrant population that had many needs such that both the parishes and the schools became the center of life for its members.

This model worked well for the first half of the 20th Century. Its success could be attributed to an articulated vision, a committed constituency, a commitment to excellence in education, “cheap labor” and a willingness to do whatever was needed to maintain its viability. i.e.; the selling of wrapping paper, magazines, light bulbs, candy, carnivals, bingo nights, etc.

However, by 1969 we were experiencing societal upheaval and feeling the impacts of the Second Vatican Council, both changed the landscape and in many ways altered the paradigm upon which the Catholic schools system had thrived in the first part of the century. Many of the values and traditional institutions that helped support the Catholic schools in the earlier part of that century were ripped apart. Yet in many ways the Catholic schools continued to move forward often with the same structures and the same guiding principles yet now in a radically different environment. In hindsight, one might say the schools were unhampered by progress.

Reverend John Flynn, former Director of Education for the Archdiocese of Omaha and Richard Burke, the founder of Catholic School Management Inc. began in the early 1970’s calling for a change in the paradigm of Catholic School financing and marketing. For those if us that are old enough to remember it was a difficult message as many would respond we are the church, not a business and would cover their ears if the word marketing was used in a conversation related to our schools. This author hopes that the annals of the history of Catholic School education will recognize Father Flynn and Richard Burke among others as pioneers in changing the face of how our Catholic schools in America schools are financed, governed, administered and marketed.

Today and Tomorrow

There has been much research and many studies done in recent years around the challenges facing Catholic schools in the 21st Century. There has been increasing dialogue among many differing constituents as to what can be done to maintain and strengthen our schools going forward.

It is my hope that all baptized members of our Church will reaffirm unequivocally that the Catholic school is the best place for the formation of the next generation of Catholics. Studies have shown that those who attended Catholic schools in the past are by and large the leaders in our parishes today. They are more faithful in participating in the sacramental life of the Church and in their active engagement in the parish community.

The canons are very specific about the quality of education offered in a Catholic school and each Ordinary is responsible for assuring that the education offered in a Catholic school must be as good or better than what a family can receive within their respective community. With this in mind, as we forge ahead, we need to constantly evaluate and access the work that is being done to make sure the schools are accomplishing the goals that are set for them and also that they have the necessary resources to make this a reality.

The National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) has developed a new resource which is known as “National Standards and Benchmarks for effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools.” These standards describe how the mission-driven, program effective, well managed and responsibly governed Catholic schools operate. The Association developed these standards in the hope that they would give cohesiveness to our articulation of one’s understanding of what we mean when we use the term Catholic school and the expectations one can anticipate when they enroll their child in a Catholic School.

In the document there are three types of statements that are grounded in Church teachings, best practices and proven success of those committed to the future of Catholic elementary and secondary education in the United States. In summary, The “National Standards and Benchmarks for effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools:

  • Documents the Defining Characteristics, which describe the deep Catholic identity of Catholic Schools.
  •  Identifies Standards, which communicate policies, programs, structures, and processes that should be present in a Catholic school.
  • Suggests Benchmarks, which allow one to provide observable, measurable, and clear descriptors for evaluating and crafting improvements to the Catholic school experience.

Prudent use of this tool can help to better articulate why we need our Catholic schools. We need to explain more emphatically that their maintenance is the responsibility of the whole Catholic community and not simply the parents of the children who attend them. We need to enlist the support of a wider constituency in our community who sees the valuable resource that our schools are to society at large and are willing to partner with us in maintaining their viability.

In promoting the reason for our schools we need to point out that our schools are not only places where one can learn to read and write but they are places where a person is helped to develop their full potential, to be formed in the true values of our Christian faith, to participate in a nurturing and Christ-centered community where one is encouraged to develop his /her relationship with Jesus and with others so that the unique dignity of every person is respected and valued.

It often surprises me that there is so much discussion today regarding the Catholic Identity of our Schools. As an individual with nearly a lifetime of service to Catholic education, I can recall first reading the Bishops Pastoral Letter issued in 1971 entitled “To teach as Jesus Did”. It seems as valid today as it did then as it focuses on for us the three-fold mission of our Catholic schools – to proclaim the Gospel, to build community and to serve our brothers and sisters.

Perhaps the dialog should no longer be about what is the Catholic identity of our schools, but how do we best implement the guidance of the pastoral letter. Specifically, the school must be a place where the virtue of charity and love for one’s neighbor is the touchstone of the daily life and activity of the school. Christian Community service must be fostered as a constitutive dimension of one’s formation into the fully formed human person that is the goal of all Catholic education.

We must not be hesitant to point out to parents that our Catholic schools are more important than ever in assisting them in their responsibility as the primary educators of their children. We live in a time and in a culture whose values are progressively more and more secular and humanistic. Unfortunately in our country today the government sponsored education that is being offered to children is one based on the philosophy of secular humanism. The values of that system are quite contrary to our understanding of human nature and the way the Lord calls us to live. Our Catholic faith calls us to evangelize our culture and our Catholic elementary and Secondary schools play a critical and irreplaceable role in this effort.

If we are to maintain and prosper our Catholic schools we must re-evaluate many of the structures and resources that helped in the past, discard what is no longer relevant in the current milieu and put in place the foundation stones that will carry us through to the future.

Some believe the two largest challenges facing Catholic Schools are Finance and Governance. While not discounting these challenges, I choose to respectfully disagree. In my opinion the most crucial threat to our schools is leadership. It is perhaps the most important challenge to the survival of the Catholic Schools. We need to develop, form and train individuals who can guide our schools into the future. The leaders must be totally committed to the mission of Catholic education. They must be faith-filled people and will be true role models for the staff and students they will encounter on a daily basis. They must have a passion for the work that needs to be done and a willingness to work to achieve the goals that are put forth. These individuals must embody and live the Catholic identity that we proclaim and be examples of individuals who, with God’s grace, have become true disciples of the Lord.


The Second Vatican Council called for a wider participation of the laity in the mission and work of the Church. The school is an appropriate venue for this participation. The Catholic School leader at the helm of our schools in the 21st century will embrace the concept of stewardship and expand the involvement of the management of the school to include competent lay leaders. This collaborative model of governance will utilize a wider pool of talent to help fashion and communicate the direction of the school and its mission. While the role of the Pastor is vital and important as “Shepherd”, the pastor of a parish with a Catholic school should partner with his school administrator to enlist the skills and talents of his parishioners in the running and maintaining the parish and school. We must not be shy about asking individuals to give of their time and talent to help in this important and essential work of the Church. Every pastor and school administrator needs the assistance of a Board, which will help direct and guide the future well being of the school. Since the early 1990’s I have been along with Richard Burke and others a strong advocate of establishing Boards of limited jurisdiction.

Humility, while a great virtue in an individual can be deadly for an institution.  Jesus tells us in Matthew’s Gospel,” Neither do you light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket where no one can see but rather on a lamp stand so it gives light to all the world.”(Matt: 5:15)

The global communications network that has come of age with the development of the Internet requires schools to be able to communicate their message effectively to their constituents. This will require a well thought out and well crafted marketing plan for the school. The Catholic schools will not succeed unless they tell their success story effectively to a wider community and promote the success they achieve in working with our young people. People like to support successful endeavors and they like to be associated with   winning programs.  John Kennedy said: “Success has many father’s, but failure, is always an orphan.”

There is no question that the maintenance of our Catholic schools and the education they provide will be an ongoing challenge in the years ahead. However, we must not underestimate the overall benefits that come to a parish, diocese and our church from sponsoring Catholic schools. Our schools are about children and the formation that is needed to help them develop into the sons and daughters that God has called them to be.

A Catholic school is a life giving entity. The energy that young families bring to the community needs to be harnessed and guided. In truth good Catholic schools can and should be the lifeblood of our parishes, dioceses and church.