One of the greatest contributions of the Catholic Church in our country remains the establishment of Catholic schools. Millions of young Catholics (and numerous non-Catholics) have been educated in Catholic schools since the very foundation of the United States. In the face of unrelenting obstacles and widespread social opposition, colonial Franciscan missionaries, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and her sisters, St. John Neumann and his co-workers laid the foundation for the most extensive Catholic school system in the world. It is their legacy that we commemorate during Catholic Schools Week.
This year's theme is "Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service." More than merely a tag-line or slogan, these words present a statement of the identity, purpose and mission of our Catholic schools. Here in the Diocese of Trenton, these words come to life in the Catholic schools throughout our four counties.
Unfortunately, like most dioceses in the United States, the Diocese of Trenton has witnessed a decline in enrollment in our Catholic schools resulting in some few having to close their doors. In no instance has the issue been one of the failure of Catholic mission, not at all. In every instance, however, the problem has been shifting demographics and diminishing enrollments which compromise academic quality and destabilize both long- and short-term financial sustainability.
When Catholic schools close, we need to acknowledge our sadness but, more importantly, we should celebrate their accomplishments over the years as reflected in the lives of so many Catholic alumni/ae. When Catholic schools succeed, we need to do everything possible to promote and foster them, encouraging increased enrollment and financial support and stability. That is the only way our Catholic schools will survive.
My many years working in Catholic schools have convinced me there is no substitute for what they have to offer: Catholic faith; Catholic values and world view; Catholic socialization and excellence in educational experience. Independent research has likewise demonstrated that fact. Catholic schools are every Catholic's business and responsibility, because they are the greatest hope for the future of our teaching and learning Church. Imagine the history of the Catholic Church in our country without them.
Each year, we devote a week to celebrate Catholic schools, but they deserve much more. Let us all get behind Catholic schools in the Diocese. Let's "fill the seats" so that we can form communities that fill the hearts and minds of our young Catholics with "Faith, Knowledge and Service" – the hallmarks of Catholic education.
Most Reverend David M. O'Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton