“When it comes to education,” writes Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, “nobody has a better track record than the Church.”
Cardinal Dolan is right. Catholics have always been educators: wherever the Gospel is proclaimed, intellectual formation follows. The Catholic Church invented the modern university. A Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon, is the father of the scientific method. And in America, there have been Catholic schools longer than there have been parishes and cathedrals.
In the late 19th century, the great Bishop John Lancaster Spalding wrote that: “without parish schools, there is no hope that the Church will be able to maintain itself in America.”
The first missionaries to America, long before dioceses and parishes were formally established, built schools for the sake of teaching the faith, and for the sake of building Catholic communities, united around the mission of education. Catholic education creates Catholic culture by forming leaders who think and live, in all aspects of life, from the perspective of faith.
Catholic schools have long been essential to the Church’s mission in the United States and have been at the heart of Catholic life in Southern Nebraska for well over a hundred years. In the Diocese of Lincoln, our Catholic schools have allowed us to transmit the faith, from one generation to the next, to form and equip young men and women to make virtuous and holy choices, to become priests, and religious sisters, and good parents—and to become leaders in business, the arts, and public life in our state.
In fact, Catholic schools are important for more than the survival of the Church. Catholic schools are important for the sake of peaceful, prosperous, and well-ordered communities. In 2014, law professors at the University of Notre Dame released research demonstrating the Catholic schools are critical to maintaining strong and safe neighborhoods in many American cities. They found that, “Catholic school closures precede elevated levels of crime and disorder and suppressed levels of social cohesion. Conversely . . . an open Catholic school in a neighborhood (correlates) with lower levels of serious crime. . . . Catholic schools matter to urban neighborhoods not only as educational institutions—although, to be sure, they matter a great deal educationally—but also as community institutions.”
Catholic schools are institutions that impact entire communities. The researchers concluded by saying that neighborhoods rise and fall, predictability and demonstrably, with the presence of Catholic schools.
Families, too, depend on Catholic schools. Catholic school students are prepared to become good husbands and wives, good fathers and mothers. Catholic school students learn, from an early age, to treat their families as gifts from God, and to love them with humility and grace.
Catholic school students learn, in fact, to treat all people with respect. And they learn that each one of us has a vital role to play in building and maintaining the common good. Catholic school students learn how to protect the vulnerable, support justice, and work for freedom. And they learn how to live and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This week, the Church celebrates Catholic Schools Week, and I am privileged to spend time each day visiting our Catholic schools. I see in our students the leaders of their generation, and I see the saints of their generation. And saints, more than anything else, are what Catholic schools help to produce.
Families, communities, and the Church all face new and unprecedented challenges in the modern world. The decay of Christian culture seems to have no limit. We need saints to lead our world to peace, to virtue, and true freedom. We need saints, and as long as that is true, each one us needs Catholic schools.
May we thank God for our Catholic schools, and may we commit to supporting their critical mission.
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