Homily for Catholic Schools Week

January 25, 2009

Today we begin the annual celebration of Catholic Schools Week. Although I was asked to show a video about the Wisconsin Rapids Area Catholic Schools, commonly known as WRACS, I decided that I would rather take this opportunity to share some personal and pastoral thoughts about Catholic schools, religious education in general and also public school education.

Let me begin by affirming in no uncertain terms that the home is the most important center of religious education. Although I have known this for a long, long time, the evidence continues to convince me of this simple truth. I see over and over again that children raised in homes where love for God and love for our faith are important values, and where service to God and to others is practiced consistently, children learn to treasure what their parents treasure and practice what their parents practice. The home is the true heart and soul of religious belief and practice.

The history of Catholic schools is well documented. I don’t need to repeat it here. In these early days of the Twenty-first Century, Catholic schools continue to do what they have always existed to do, and that is to help parents educate their children in the ways of faith within a context of sound educational principles and values.

In the Diocese of La Crosse Catholic school education has long been a high priority, and it continues to be so today. Unfortunately, it seems that there are many Catholics who seem to be losing heart when it comes to sustaining this important ministry to our youth. It intrigues me that this seems to be occurring at the same time when other Christian churches are seeing the value of faith-based education and are making huge sacrifices to initiate or maintain such schools.

Fortunately, there are many Catholics who willingly and generously sustain their commitment to our Catholic schools, making great sacrifices of money and time to do so.

I’d like to talk about that commitment and what it implies for those who send their children to our Catholic schools. Support for WRACS is the single largest portion of our parish’s budget. In essence, the parish is giving a huge gift to every child who attends our Catholic schools. Tuition and fundraising efforts—including the Scrip program—cover a little less than half the cost of each child’s education. That means, of course, that the parish is paying a little more than half.

As a pastor, I feel that it is not too much to ask that families whose children attend our schools give something back to their parishes. Many—maybe most—already do. But there are some who are not involved in the life of the parish in any way. They claim parish membership and benefit significantly from that claim, but don’t attend Mass regularly, if at all. Regular Mass attendance, I think, should be a minimal expectation.

Because we pastors believe that a family’s connection to the parish needs to be established, next year’s registration process will include a form that will require the signature of the pastor. For most families this will be routine. They’ll be able to catch me after Mass; I know them because they’re involved in the parish; I’ll thank them and sign the form. For those who are not currently involved in the life of the parish—well, it may take a little more time.

In a moment I will address some similar issues with regard to our religious education program, which many still prefer to call CCD. But before I do that I would like to point out some differences between our Catholic schools and the public schools.

I am proud that some of our best parishioners are teachers and administrators in our public schools. I see them at Mass week after week. They live their Catholic faith on a daily basis in their love for children and their dedication to the educational process. I have seen firsthand how they touch the lives of young people.

However, the Constitution requires that they accomplish this good in a context that is sterile of any overt religious values. They can live their faith, and they can teach by example, but they can’t teach that Jesus is truly present in the Holy Eucharist.

I have an atheist acquaintance who used to teach in a public high school. I once made the comment to him that our Catholic schools have the advantage of being able to teach values; I should said Christian values, of course, but I didn’t. Clearly miffed by this, he retorted, “Well, I teach values too!”

I’m not really one who thinks quickly in a discussion like that, so I’ve often wished I had asked the logical question: Whose values? Even our Catholic teachers and administrators in public schools must sometimes ask themselves that question: whose values are we supposed to be teaching? Public schools are constitutionally cursed to walk a very careful line in such matters. They can, and usually do, teach values that are generally accepted and not unique to any one religion, but they cannot teach that abortion is evil or sex outside of marriage is a sin or that attending Mass on Sunday is an obligation, not a suggestion.

And that, of course, is where Catholic schools really shine. Not only can our schools teach what the Church teaches in matters of morality, liturgy and social justice, but they can also make readily available the sacraments of the Church, especially penance and the Eucharist.

Catholic schools help to meet the needs of the Church in another important way. There is a desperate need for more young people to answer God’s call to the priesthood and consecrated life. I am convinced that God has not stopped calling. That means that many young people who are being called are not answering.

In the seventeen and one-half years that I have been pastor here, Assumption High School has graduated at least three men who are now priests of the Diocese of La Crosse and at least three women who are in religious orders, having dedicated themselves to the consecrated life. While it is true that no such vocations have come from Lincoln High School in that time span, Father Al Wierzba at Our Lady Queen of Heaven is always quick to point out that vocations can, indeed, come from public schools. He should know. He is one.

For a moment now, I’d like briefly to address our religious education program. I’m sure it’s obvious to just about everyone that a religious education program cannot do what Catholic schools can do. This would be true even if we closed our Catholic schools and diverted the money to religious education and a comprehensive youth ministry program. Still, thanks to dedicated teachers who volunteer their time and generously share their faith—and a DRE with the talent and energy to provide the guidance and resources that a good program always needs, the precious time available does not go to waste.

I had the opportunity just recently of celebrating the Sacrament of Penance with some of our young people in one of our religious education classes. It was a wonderful experience for me. The children were prayerful and they were well prepared by their teachers. Afterwards I went up to each of the teachers and told them what a good job they had done.

But, as with Catholic school education, a religious education program is really only as good as the faith life of the families. It breaks my heart when I have to tell children preparing for confession that if they miss Mass on Sundays because their parents don’t go, then it’s not their sin; it’s their parents' sin. I know I have to say this, because there are so many of these children that I literally never see at Mass—they are victims of parental negligence in matters of faith, and that’s where the sin lies.

The good news is that there are many families in this parish, whether their children go to our Catholic schools or to our religious education classes, who love and live their Catholic faith and want their children to love it and live it, too. As just one example—and I could think of many others, when I need Mass servers to volunteer for vacation-time serving assignments, the volunteers come from both WRACS families and religious ed families. I know that the parents of these young people are helping them to develop a spirit of unselfish service and a willingness to do something extra for God and for our parish family.

As we begin Catholic Schools Week, and as I conclude this homily, I would like to acknowledge the debt we all owe to Saint Paul, whose conversion we commemorate today. He was a most remarkable Catholic educator, and he minced no words in proclaiming to the first Christians the truth about Jesus Christ and the Christian life.

Then I would like to thank all of you. It is your financial support of your parish specifically that makes it possible to offer the exceptional education that is available to all in our Catholic schools. This kind of giving is truly an act of faith.

I would like to commend in a special way those families who are actively involved in the life of our parish. As I said at the beginning, the home is the most important center of religious education, and when you witness to your faith there and in the life of our parish and the community at large, you are giving your children a gift beyond measure.

Finally, let me just say that I have read this homily from the written page because I have found that some people have selective hearing. I will post it on the parish website, where my exact words can be easily checked.

May God bless you, and may God help our Catholic schools to flourish.