By Beth Griffin, Catholic News Service     8/28/2015

HUNTINGTON, N.Y. (CNS) — A Catholic school needs “a strong priestly presence” or it “is going to move in a problematic direction,” said Father Peter M.J. Stravinskas, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation.

“The school effort rises and falls with the priest. If he’s engaged, it thrives,” he explained. “If he’s indifferent, the best efforts get undermined.”

Catholic schools are critical to the mission of the church because they teach the faith, and identify and develop priestly vocations, Father Stravinskas said.

The priest led a two-day seminar at the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington Aug. 18 and 19 for priests from 13 dioceses. The program combined history and church teaching about Catholic education with practical advice on how priests can be valuable witnesses to the faith by their presence in the schools.

Priests should build time into their schedules to be with students on the playground, in the cafeteria, at sporting events and in the classroom. “You don’t have to be a theologian to teach high school religion. If you can teach hormone-raging juniors and seniors, you can do anything,” Father Stravinskas said. “But you have to be authentic, or they can smell it a mile away.”

He added, “My greatest joy is being able to drop into a first- or second-grade class.”

The priest is an important resource for the faculty and administration for pastoral input, theological advice, counseling, outreach to parents and grandparents, and welcoming new families. “We never enrolled children in our school, we enrolled families, to make the point that parents are the first educators of their children,” he said.

The bishop sets the tone for Catholic education in a diocese and can influence vocations by his placement of priests, Father Stravinskas said. Most seminarians are graduates of Catholic high schools, he said. Priestly vocations are robust in dioceses such as Lincoln, Nebraska, and Wichita, Kansas, where newly ordained priests serve their first assignment as high school teachers.

“It was short-sighted on the part of many bishops to remove priests from schools. The vocation crisis was exacerbated by their removal,” Father Stravinskas said. Nonetheless, “if this generation of priests is actively inserted into the school apostolate, we’ll have plenty of vocations and they’ll multiply themselves,” he said.

Similarly, seminary rectors should encourage priests to participate in schools and bishops should choose pastors carefully. “How can a bishop assign a priest to a parish with a school if a fellow has no orientation to it at all?” he asked.

Parishioners must see the school as an integral part of the parish, not a separate entity, Father Stravinskas said. “We ought not to be talking about Catholic schools only during Catholic Schools Week,” he said.

It was a “fundamental mistake in the 1970s” to separate the finances of parishes and schools, Father Stravinskas said. “While it may have been more efficient, at the psychological level it caused problems by creating the impression that the school was a separate entity unto itself.”

Seminar participant Father Christopher Phillips, pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio, said he situated his office adjacent to the school lobby and keeps the door open to encourage student drop-ins. He also said the church and the school are connected by internal hallways.

“Give everyone an opportunity to use the school,” for meetings and functions, and keep the parish informed of school activities through the bulletin, Father Stravinskas recommended.

He cited the commitment of Pope Francis to Catholic education. “When the pope talks about his experience, he gets almost rhapsodic,” Father Stravinskas said. The pope’s habits of a lifetime were instilled as a sixth-grader with the Salesians, he said.

“Pope Francis obviously doesn’t buy the argument that Catholic schools are a distraction from the periphery,” Father Stravinskas said. Educators must be mature, well-balanced, passionate, prayerful purveyors of values and customs, as well as content, and consider their craft a vocation, rather than a profession. According to Pope Francis, consistency and witness are indispensable factors in the education of young people, he said.

Vera Hough, a married mother of four children from Little Silver, New Jersey, urged seminar participants to be ‘unexpected priests’ in the daily lives of schoolchildren. Such a priest inspires by being present and sincere. “You may never know the fruits of your labors as an unexpected priest. You will inspire others by your integrity,” she said. “Be faithful to the magisterium. Be yourself. Be ecumenical, but always faithful. You will nourish hearts, lighten heavy loads and foster healthy, Christian families.”

The Catholic Education Foundation, based in Rochester, was established in 2001 to provide financial assistance for needy students in Catholic high schools. “Over time, it has morphed into an organization that helps Catholic schools deepen their Catholic identity through workshops, a periodical and a Catholic identity assessment instrument,” Father Stravinskas said.

“We’ve been getting requests from bishops to do something to help priests understand the incredible importance of Catholic schools in the overall mission of the church, and how critical is the role of the priest in maintaining that centrality of the schools,” he said.

“Catholic education K-12 should be tuition-free,” he said. “Every Catholic is responsible for the maintenance of Catholic schools. We need to recapture that concept we lost in the 196s and 1970s. We have the most affluent Catholic population in the history of the church. Yet somehow immigrants who built schools with their pennies have grandchildren making six figures who can’t maintain them. It’s not a lack of money, it’s a lack of faith,” he concluded.

Father Joseph W. McQuaide IV of the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, recently completed his first priestly assignment. He said the seminar confirmed and clarified his experience that the priest is the “man on the ground, able to interact with students and, through them, their families to engage in ongoing evangelization.”

“The Catholic faithful are extremely sympathetic to their priests and a little goes a long way. If you do something for their children, you do something great for them. We need to find time, be there and show support,” he said.