Catholic schools — An enduring witness

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Cunningham_formal_robes When we arrive at mid-August, we realize that summer days, with different schedules, some extended vacation time with family and friends, family picnics and trips to the beach are soon coming to an end. School age children and young people know that school days are just around the corner! As I thought about the beginning of a new school year, I recalled my school years and the enduring witness that Catholic schools have provided for countless generations of students.
Catholic schools have played a prominent role in my life since September of 1949 when I entered first grade at St. John the Baptist School in Kenmore, N.Y.  Grammar school, high school, college, theological studies and graduate school have all taken place under the protective mantle of the Church.  As an associate pastor teaching religion and visiting classrooms, as a pastor meeting the obligations of an assessment for a regional school, as chancellor and vicar general and now as a diocesan bishop, ensuring the catholicity of our schools and inviting participation in the vital mission of Catholic school education has been a great blessing for me.
Some might say that my education, solely in Catholic institutions, has been limited. On the contrary, the depth and breadth of my Catholic education in various institutions has been an amazing gift and one which I will cherish all the days of my life.
Decades before the Diocese of Syracuse was established, the Catholic Bishops of the U.S. at the Third Council of Baltimore decreed that each parish should have its own school. This decree set in motion the most vigorous Catholic school building campaign in history.
However, Catholic education in the U.S., even before the Council of Baltimore, was firmly rooted in the minds and hearts of many. Immigrants to this land, wanting the best education possible while holding to their religious beliefs and their culture, built, staffed and supported Catholic education at every level.  St. John Neumann, the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia and earlier a missionary in western New York, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, a convert to the faith, the widowed mother of five children and eventually the founder of the Sisters of Charity, are revered as founders of Catholic schools in our country.  Numerous women and men religious embraced as their lifetime work the education of our young.  Often times this was done in difficult circumstances. Our debt to those who have gone before us and provided us with the legacy of Catholic schools is immense.
Even before Catholic education came to our shores, the great medieval universities of Europe were founded and nurtured by the Church. Explorers, scientists, teachers, artists, sculptors all experienced education within the warm embrace of the Catholic Church. People in all walks of life, in every generation, from every culture and background have been the beneficiaries of the rich tradition of Catholic education.
Over the years circumstances have changed as the Church has labored to continue its support for Catholic schools. In our day, new challenges have arisen often resulting in the closing of some Catholic schools.  In the Diocese of Syracuse we still have many opportunities to benefit from Catholic education. In our parish and regional elementary schools, and our six Catholic high schools, at Le Moyne College and in various adult educational opportunities, students can continue to learn how to be true to our faith as well as productive members of our community.
While the numbers of our schools and our enrollments have diminished, Catholic schools continue to be a priority for the diocese. They are a vital part of the Church’s mission. Outside of the family, Catholic schools are the best means at our disposal to teach the Word of God and to form disciples who practice the Word as followers of Jesus. Our Catholic schools do not compete with other schools, but they offer what other schools cannot provide, a Christian concept of life centered on Jesus Christ. The task of a Catholic school always has been and still is to offer the best of human education along with the best of formative Catholic education where the different aspects of human knowledge are taught in light of the Gospel.
When our schools open in September, over 500 dedicated and committed teachers will be educating over 6,000 students in the 22 elementary and six high schools. At Le Moyne College 3,500 students will benefit from Catholic education.
A new school year is filled with hope and excitement.  All of us in the diocese — every parish and every individual — have an opportunity to participate in this exciting mission. The schools that our parents and grandparents built in difficult times must be maintained in our own uncertain times for the benefit of our children and for those who will follow them.
Our Catholic schools are a blessing, a blessing for the families and children who currently attend them, but also a blessing for the entire Church community that benefits and will benefit from the lives of these children.  Our Catholic schools not only educate the mind and intellect of a child, they also nourish the spirit of the student.  The message of our Catholic schools is the person and message of Jesus. Christ is the foundation of the whole educational enterprise in a Catholic school. His message gives meaning to life and helps students direct their thoughts, actions and will according to the Gospel, making the beatitudes the norm of life (cf. The Catholic School, Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, #34).  Catholic schools are a vital portion of the Church’s mission to “teach all that I have commanded you.”  I am grateful for the enduring witness to Jesus and His message which our Catholic schools have provided and continue to provide for the children and young people who attend them. I assure all students of my prayerful support as they begin a new school year.

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