DPC meets new superintendent, discusses pastoral planning, disability etiquette

The Diocesan Pastoral Council (DPC) met at Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School in East Syracuse May 17 for its second plenary session of 2014. The DPC, which meets four times per year, is composed of lay representatives from parishes across the diocese, clergy and religious, and representatives from diocesan offices and ministries. This session’s agenda included discussion with William Crist, the new diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools; an update on the pastoral planning process; and a presentation on etiquette and language from members of the diocesan Commission on Persons with Disabilities.

New superintendent

   Crist took office as superintendent March 10 of this year, bringing 32 years of public school education experience to the position. He served as assistant superintendent for the Oswego City School District from 2004 to 2008 and as superintendent from 2008 to 2013, and for several months as interim superintendent for the Massena Central School District beginning in August 2013. A lifelong Catholic, Crist said he saw the opening for the diocesan superintendent position as “a calling I needed to respond to.”

   Since March, Crist has visited all 22 schools in the diocese to meet with principals, faculty, parents and students; attended school concerts, sporting events and fundraisers; and met with diocesan administrative committees. Crist enumerated numerous “points of pride”: more than 5,300 students are enrolled in pre-K through grade 12 across 18 elementary schools and four high schools; schools “recognize and boast” small class sizes, as well as 100 percent graduation rates, various advanced placement and foreign language courses, and programs in the fine and performing arts; and school communities include dedicated staff and active parent organizations. Students learn about their faith in daily religion classes and the teachings of Jesus Christ are woven into all classes, he said, also adding that Catholic schools students completed more than 72,000 hours of Christian service last year.

   Crist also addressed areas of concern. Enrollment continues to decline, he said, though there are indications that that trend is leveling off. Although more than $800,000 in financial aid was given to students and their families last year, there is a “much greater need” for assistance, Crist said. Funds are also needed to provide competitive salaries for staff, he added, as well as to support school facilities and infrastructure. He also identified the need to better assemble and engage alumni and to develop a succession plan as faculty members age.

   Crist then took a variety of questions from council members, addressing items including teacher salaries, parish support and the Common Core standards.

   Asked how the salaries of Catholic schools teachers compare to those of their public school peers, Crist said that, generally, Catholic school teacher and administrative salaries “are between 30 and 40 percent less in a starting capacity.” While the educators he’s met with are “here for a greater reason and a greater mission,” Crist said, he acknowledged that “we need to work diligently to provide competitive salaries for all our teachers, administration and staff members.”

  Crist also spoke to the importance of the financial support all parishes provide for the diocese’s Catholic schools. “We have a responsibility, I believe, through Catholic education to share the Gospel and the message of Jesus Christ. We have a responsibility also to work to promote vocations to the priesthood and other religious orders, and I will say that the number of individuals who come from Catholic education to pursue those vocations is very, very important,” Crist said. “More so, I would say that the very core of our parishes and our Catholic faith and existence within this diocese is represented in the schools and the classrooms that make up those 22 schools…. I believe that core of our Catholic religion and our faith here in the Diocese of Syracuse is incumbent upon a strong Catholic educational program.”

   Addressing the Common Core standards, Crist said he believes they are “long overdue as a nation,” when comparing the U.S. to other world economic leaders. “Statistically we have seen that our schools, both public and non-public schools, are not competitive internationally,” he said, “at the same time, recognizing that the Common Core is simply a set of standards — a higher set of standards — that have expectations for school children to complete and achieve to be college and/or career-ready.” The Common Core standards are “something that the Catholic schools here in the Syracuse Diocese have brought into the curriculum. It is, again, a set of standards; it is not the curriculum. It allows teachers the flexibility to create curriculum, working with the principals and educational leaders within the building and it still does provide a great deal of flexibility as to how children learn and process,” he said.

Ongoing pastoral planning

   Brother Ed Falsey, OFM Conv., diocesan associate director for pastoral planning, provided an update on “Seeing Natural Bridges,” the ongoing collaborative pastoral planning effort. Msgr. Jim Lang, director of pastoral planning, provided an in-depth update during a concurrent breakout session with parish pastoral council leaders.

   The next stage in the planning process, “Crossing the Bridge,” will ask representatives of pastoral care areas (or PCAs, a geographic cluster of contiguous parishes) to consult on and respond to specific themes raised during previous PCA meetings. This effort will include creating a communications plan to inform parishioners about the ongoing process; identifying areas for collaboration on programs and in evangelization and developing a plan to implement such collaboration; preparing a Mass schedule for use in the future as the number of priests in the area decreases; developing a management profile that identifies the trained staff and volunteers that will be needed as the number of priests decreases; and identifying the resources necessary for accomplishing these goals.

   Planning groups have been asked to return these materials to the Pastoral Planning Office by July 1. The materials will then be reviewed by the diocesan College of Consultors and Bishop Robert J. Cunningham.

   An announcement on how parishes and ministries will link, merge, cluster or otherwise configure will be made following that review, on or about October 1. According to materials distributed at the meeting, “parish longevity will be based on pastoral, program and financial sustainability” and alignments of parishes will occur over time on an as-needed basis.

Disability etiquette and language

   Members of the diocesan Commission on Persons with Disabilities offered a presentation on disability etiquette and language.

    Sally Johnston, a parishioner of St. Daniel Church in Syracuse, opened the presentation by sharing her personal experiences of living with a disability — including the challenges and the triumphs. Johnston, a founding member of Disabled in Action of Greater Syracuse and a former staff member at Enable, has been a lifelong advocate for the full inclusion of people with disabilities in the community and the Church.

   “I’m a part of this commission for a really important reason. Not just for physical access, but I want to see people with disabilities fully included in the Church,” she said. “I want to see people with disabilities who want to be readers be able to be readers. But sometimes you have an altar that’s up a step or two. What if someone wants to be in the choir? Sometimes the choir is up on a level. Those are some of the things I would like to see. Full inclusion for all of us. Because we’re just like you. We’re people.”

   Karen Gillette, who works with the Office for Persons with Developmental Disabilities as a broker and is also a member of Disabled in Action, spoke about etiquette and language.

   “Language is a powerful tool. It can be inclusive or exclusive depending on how one uses it,” Gillette said, offering a personal “favorite” example of unacceptable language. “I’ve been referred to as being ‘wheelchair-bound,’” she said. “My wheelchair is a tool for me to access places, but I’m not bound to my wheelchair. I do not sleep in it; it is not part of my body.” Gillette also cited “victim” and “suffering” as unacceptable terms to use when speaking about a person with a disability.

  Gillette affirmed the use of people-first language. “It is important to see the person first and the disability second,” she said. “I’m often asked what term I like people to use for my disability. Language has evolved over time. We used to be referred to as ‘handicapped.’ Now we’re ‘persons with disabilities.’ When I’m asked what term I prefer to be called, I usually say, ‘I like to be called Karen.’”

   Gillette also offered some advice on speaking to a person with a disability: speak directly to the person, do not assume you know what the person needs, don’t make assumptions based on the person’s appearance or speech, and “do not let language be a barrier to engaging people with disabilites. Do not be afraid of making a mistake,” she said. “Don’t let it be a hangup in engaging with people with disabilities. We are really thankful for your help, but also it’s a real tragedy for the Church not to let us help you and bring all of our gifts and hard-fought education into the Church to make it richer and alive.”

   Roseann Falise, a licensed mental health counselor and a member of St. Joseph’s Parish in Oswego, then presented an inventory that parishes can use to assess the accessibility of their buildings and communities. (The inventory will be available on the diocese’s website at www.syrdio.org.)

   Falise encouraged members to choose one action item to address in their parishes, to invite a person with a disability to join their parish building and grounds committees and to call on the Commission with any questions. “If we can make one change in each parish, we have created that next step,” she said.

   Connie Armstrong, director of the Northern Region Office of Faith Formation, also spoke about resources available for families with children who have disabilities. “Sometimes parents think that children with disabilities will not be welcome in faith formation,” she said. “We want them to be included in all of our programs.” For more information concerning catechesis for those with special needs, contact Armstrong at (315) 596-4014 or carmstrong@syrdio.org.

   Father Charles Vavonese, director of the Ministry to Persons with Disabilities, reminded attendees that inclusion is not about “we/they,” but rather about “us,” and that all people will become disabled to some degree as they age. The Commission is available to present awareness sessions at parishes; contact Father Vavonese at cvavonese@syrdio.org or (315) 470-1491 for information.

Capital campaign?

   The meeting closed with a question-and-answer session with Bishop Cunningham. Prior to answering questions on an array of topics, Bishop Cunningham spoke about the outcome of a recent study conducted to determine the feasibility of a diocesan-wide capital campaign.

   “Following the completion of [the] study, and listening to several people, I have decided that we will not have a diocesan-wide capital campaign at this time,” he said. “I thought, in light of many things, that it isn’t the right time to insist upon a diocesan campaign,” adding that there was, however, “significant support” among the people.

   Bishop Cunningham said he will instead undertake a private campaign to raise money for three needs of the “diocesan family”: necessary restoration and repair at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, tuition assistance for Catholic schools students, and scholarships and funding for the training of lay ministers.
   Bishop Cunningham also said that parishes that have requested to undertake individual capital campaigns have been given permission to do so.

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