California Catholic Schools: Fostering Their Integral Mission in the Church and Society

Coinciding with Catholic Schools’ Week, the California Catholic Conference of Bishops has issued a comprehensive document entirely focused on Catholic schools.  Entitled “Our Catholic Schools in California: A Stellar Past, A Robust Future”, the document recognizes the tremendous benefit that Catholic schools have had and will continue to have on society as a whole.  

Bishop Edward Clark, auxiliary from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and chair of the Conference’s Committee on Education, has a strong, affirmative and hopeful vision: 

“Catholic schools are a valuable resource to the state and have a strong future in California” he points out.

Bishop Clark explains that the document is a result of discussions that the Bishops have had for the past few years about “how to build up Catholic schools even when it has been increasingly difficult to maintain them.”  Faced with this challenge, the “California Bishops issued this document to not only reaffirm their commitment to keeping Catholic schools open but to also use the document as a springboard for what bishops and priests can do in their own dioceses to promote and sustain Catholic schools.” 

The statement is divided into three sections, one of which is specifically addressed to the clergy and lay faithful, another to civic and state leaders and the last section to development of strategies for schools.  (Read the statement here.)  As a whole, the document provides a broad overview of the vital role Catholic schools play in forming students in the faith, in preparing students to be leaders in society and in helping underprivileged students achieve greater success than they would by attending public schools. 

In the section offered to the clergy and lay faithful, the Bishops stress that “[b]ecause the character of our children is one of the core concerns of our Catholic schools, the responsibility for forming future Catholic leaders belongs to all Catholics.” 

Compelling statistics are also cited that reveal how critical Catholic schools are in reinforcing students’ commitment to the faith even into adulthood.  “Of those who never attended a Catholic school, only 5 percent continued to attend Mass on a regular basis after reaching maturity, compared to 34 percent of those who attended a Catholic elementary school and 39 percent who attended a Catholic high school.”   

Additionally, the document underscores the value that Catholic schools bring to the civic life of California. 

“Catholic schools must form students in the faith and also educate them to assume leadership roles in their churches, communities, and professions,” explains Bishop Clark.  Clearly, the benefits of Catholic schools extend far beyond the Catholic community to the entire state as a whole.

The Bishops place a special emphasis on the role of Catholic schools in educating all who attend, including newly arrived immigrants seeking a better life in America.  As Bishop Clark notes, the dynamics of the immigrant Catholic experience has changed in recent years.  “In the past, Catholic schools were modeled on an immigrant church, a three-generational model where leaders formed after three generations in this country.  However, that model has changed because with today’s immigrant families, leaders are being formed in one generation.  So, even new immigrants have to be prepared to become Catholic leaders.”

This is particularly relevant for California’s Latino population, which numbers close to 15 million, the majority of whom are Catholic.  The statement stresses the need for clergy, especially pastors, to become more proactive in encouraging Latino students to attend Catholic schools.  However, this can be very challenging. 

“Latino families are often immigrant families and come from a society where Catholic schools are unfortunately private and often only for the wealthy.  Therefore, American Catholic schools can look exclusive and forbidding.  We need to make Catholic schools inviting,” said Bishop Clark.

He cites the example of one local Catholic school that opens up its playground for younger siblings when parents or grandparents come to school to pick up their students.  Having bilingual staff is also important so that children are not forced to serve as interpreters.  Overall, Bishop Clark recommends using the school as often as possible – for prayer groups, citizenship classes, social gatherings – so that the Catholic school is seen as belonging to and a being a valuable resource for the entire parish.

The Bishops believe that these outreach efforts to the Latino community will benefit not only the community itself but our society at large.  The statement cites evidence that demonstrates that, in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the high school graduation rate for Latino students is 97.5 percent (compared with 66 percent for Latino students in public schools.)  Overall in California, a Latino student is 42 percent more likely to graduate from high school and 2.5 times more likely to graduate from college if he or she attends a Catholic high school.

The document also notes that “adults who attended Catholic schools in their formative years tend to be better educated and earn higher-than-average incomes, and are more likely to vote than public school graduates.”  Therefore, Catholic schools play a crucial role in forming civic-minded adults who are well-positioned to succeed and lead in society.

The Bishops conclude the statement by laying out an action plan strategy for the growth and sustainability of Catholic schools.  Their primary emphasis is on the role pastors must assume as “champions of Catholic schools,” recruiting and assisting active parish families who do not currently have children in a Catholic school. 

 “All pastors, even those who do not have a Catholic school at their parish, must do everything they can to support these families because their children will be educated and formed to become future Catholic leaders in the Church and in society,” said Bishop Clark.

With respect to the Latino community in particular, he points to research that has shown that the one person who can most influence Latino families to enroll their children in a Catholic school is their parish priest.    

Addressing the need to make Catholic schools financially accessible for families, the Bishops believe that a combination of measures needs to be taken to ensure that a Catholic school education is affordable.  These measures include parish and school scholarship opportunities, tax incentives for families and businesses, foundation support and endowment efforts.  Bishop Clark adds that he knows of a priest who does an annual collection at his parish over several Sundays to provide scholarships for deserving students.   

With this statement, the California Catholic Conference of Bishops commits itself to fostering the ongoing development of Catholic schools in each of the state’s twelve dioceses.  This important document lays out a blueprint for all of us – clergy, laity, state and civic leaders – to do our parts to share in this important endeavor.  “Society can take note from the Catholic school that is possible to create true communities out of a common effort for the common good.”  (The Catholic School, The Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, 1977).

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