As we embark on a new academic year here in the 24 schools of the Diocese of Syracuse I am proud to share with our readers that Catholic education, while filled with great challenges, remains for our Church the single most effective tool for passing on the important traditions of our faith. The formation that takes place within the walls of our schools more often than not leads to a lifetime commitment to Gospel values and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in the context of his Church. Thus I want to assure the over 250,000 Catholic members of our diocese that we are working tirelessly to assure that our Catholic parishes of the future, our vocations of the future and our Catholic traditions of the future remain vibrant here in Central New York for years to come.
The 6,000 students in grades PK – 12 across our 7 county diocese are part of a national Catholic school population of just over 2,100,000 students. Sadly enrollment across the United States has decreased by 20% over the last 10 years. Although the decline has affected all regions of the country, the largest decreases have been seen in large urban areas, principally in the Northeast and Great Lakes region, areas that were populated by high concentrations of Catholic immigrants in the late 19th and 20th centuries. As you well know, our region is no different in this regard but our hope is to reverse this trend and to stabilize our school system by setting forth a vision for a bright and viable future.
In spite of the challenges facing us as a school system, the national data tells us that our students who are immersed in a Catholic school culture each day take away a sound knowledge of the Catholic faith. In the national Assessment of Catechesis and Religious Education (ACRE) designed by the NCEA (National Catholic Educational Association) 91% of fifth graders scored 80% or higher on questions about Jesus, the Church and sacraments. Ninety percent of high school students scored 80% or higher on the section about the Church’s origin, mission, structure and community. And 80% of eighth graders scored 80% or higher on the section about prayer and religious practice.
Additionally, the national data tells us that the Catholic education system in the United States remains fertile ground for evangelization. While we know that across the country about 14% of our students are not part of the Catholic tradition, in 2009 Catholic schools around the country reported more than 700 youth, parents and staff members connected to Catholic schools chose to become Catholic this year. Responses represented 17 percent of the nation’s 178 Latin-rite dioceses or archdioceses, so actual nationwide numbers would be higher if statistics were available. A number of schools also reported that students received their First Communion or Confirmation after their families returned to the practice of their Catholic faith.
Here in the Diocese of Syracuse we are privileged to be part of a larger national Catholic school community. But here in our own region we are working hard to set forth a new vision for Catholic education by focusing on five key ideas. First, we seek to ensure that our schools remain true to their Catholic identity especially in light of 21st century challenges. Now, more than ever, it is critically important that we maintain faith-filled environments where the love of Jesus Christ is lived out in word and in deed. Second, our schools must be schools of quality. From the highest levels of administration to the halls of our schools, from our classrooms to our athletic fields, we must do everything with pride and excellence. Third, our Catholic schools must seize the opportunity to reinvent ourselves in light of the needs of 21st century learners, students that have been born into the Digital Age. We must make a commitment to prepare this new generation for the challenges that technology brings to our world while also reminding them of their moral and ethical responsibility to be good cyber-citizens. Fourth, it is no secret that our mission faces the same fiscal realities as all school systems. Therefore, we must remain good stewards of our resources and make a renewed commitment to serious and purposeful development and alumni work. Finally, our Catholic schools will be successful if we seek out bold new initiatives and become true trailblazers once again in the field of education. Such boldness requires risk-taking and creativity but it is time that we take such risks and re-create our schools so as to remain vibrant for years to come.
The difference that Catholic education makes in the lives of our young people can not be underestimated. Here in the Diocese of Syracuse we continue to work tirelessly to ensure that this integral mission of the Church remain viable even in light of the many challenges that we face. As we begin this new school year our prayer is one of gratitude and of hope. We are grateful for all that we have done and hopeful for all that is to come.