By William W. Crist | Diocesan Superintendent of Schools

As the year concludes and communities begin to open up, I reflect on what we’ve experienced throughout the 2019-2020 school year: unique accomplishments and new practices, as well as some firsts that we hope and pray to never experience again. Most importantly, I want to offer congratulations and acclaim to our seniors who have transcended those firsts, which historically will set them apart from any other cohort or class of students in the past four decades. I challenge you to find a comparable group of school graduates.

Last week, I was privileged to personally participate in the first-ever diocesan Baccalaureate Mass at our Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Traditionally, most of our schools would celebrate separate Masses to recognize their class and prepare for graduation with a Baccalaureate Mass with their respective school community. With COVID-19 restrictions in place, the event became a smaller version of the individual services, with Bishop Lucia celebrating a special diocesan Mass for all students and families via our Catholic TV livestream. As reopening requirements began to relax, the original plan of only 10 participants became 100, and on the evening of June 11, the Cathedral held its largest gathering since our world changed in mid-March. Bishop Lucia referred to our students and, directly, our graduates as the light of the world, sons and daughters of encouragement, and the living Gospel for all people to hear. I couldn’t agree more!

I was also able to witness the outstanding planning and flexibility that resulted in another first-ever: the parking lot commencement at Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School on June 13. What made this so unique was the obvious fact that this was a valiant endeavor to begin to restore community. Like the Baccalaureate Mass that actually had a congregation within the Cathedral, this event, albeit from a parking lot, brought the joy and emotion of commencement with building crescendos of honking car horns and flashing lights and the cheers and applause of family, friends, and loving onlookers from behind the fences — all modeling appropriate social distancing practices. If we needed to think outside the box to present a formal and memorable ceremony, this was a model of how our human spirit cannot be doused by a worldwide pandemic. I look forward to the remaining ceremonies, virtual and live, for our students in the coming weeks. Our high school graduates continue to enjoy the honorable distinction of attending colleges of choice, both Catholic and non-Catholic, and receiving sizable academic and merit scholarships to those same schools. Keep up the great work.

I also look forward to the many events that will require a possible pivot, twist, or adjustment to stay within the CDC guidelines while recognizing milestones in our students’ lives that only come but once in a lifetime. I applaud and praise all of our administration, teachers, parents, board members and, above all, our students for their creative and pragmatic fortitude in making these traditions meaningful for all those who will be witnesses.

This virus has also caused a mountainous redirect of our instructional strategies for the school year. There was no giving up on or compromising the academic standards that our schools and teachers nurture daily within our classrooms. That human desire to achieve was met with fortitude, grace, and patience by our teachers, parents, and students. In my 38 years in education, I have never seen anything come close to presenting such a challenge. Famous mountaineer and adventurer Sir Edmund Hillary quipped that “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” To that point, all associated and involved in our schools this semester are to be commended on climbing Mount COVID. Our schools never gave up — they recognized that they were going to get to the summit in the presence of COVID-19. They showed deep conviction of faith, knowing that you are never alone when Christ is in your life. Our collective ability to pivot and transition to provide lessons and learning in an online, virtual, and distance format is nothing short of remarkable.

As we continue to see progress with the state’s reopening phases, I’ll present you with some optimism: Our first and most favorable plan for the coming school year is to be back in the classroom this fall with modifications that allow for “new and improved” modes of delivering a Catholic school educational program that truly shows and heralds the fact that we are OPEN FOR BUSINESS. That being said, we have a responsibility to prepare multiple plans that can continue to provide direct and indirect instruction based on progress toward getting back to what was a previously normal lifestyle for our parishes and our schools.

Our mission statement affirms “our schools are faith-centered communities focused on promoting academic excellence while developing a strong moral conscience and embracing Catholic social teachings that enable our students to meet the lifelong challenges and demands of our rapidly changing world.”

This spring, we initiated a Catholic School Improvement Survey that was previously planned as an action step to better reveal positive directions as well as areas for improvement in our schools. The information gleaned from each school survey has already proven to be helpful. Through unpacking and reshaping, school awareness, assistance of our own diocesan professionals, and consultation by educational experts, our schools will be better than ever. We have a responsibility to look deeply at how we activate our own mission to educate and address some of the societal atrocities that have recently been met by protests and outcries to local, state, and national leaders.

Our schools can clearly be more engaged with how we follow our own mission. Bishop Lucia brought this to the attention of our Catholic community earlier this month:

“The events … in … Syracuse and across our nation are expressions of sorrow and frustration. Sadness at an unconscionable act that took the life of a young man in middle America despite the valiant attempt of other citizens to intervene. The scene now embedded in our consciousness cries out with the words of the Lord in Genesis 4:10 — ‘What have you done? Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!’ At its heart is a central teaching of God’s law of love that all life is sacred from conception to natural death; and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (cf. Lv 19:18, Mt 22:39, Mk 12:31, Lk 10:27).”

We will be spending part of our time this summer reviewing our own policies, procedures, and regulations, but more so, we will be better following our own responsibilities as Catholics to affirm that all life is sacred and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.

This past Saturday, we celebrated the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua. In a reflection from Franciscan Media, the editor wrote, “Anthony should be the patron of those who find their lives completely uprooted and set in a new and unexpected direction. Like all saints, he is a perfect example of turning one’s life completely over to Christ. God did with Anthony as God pleased — and what God pleased was a life of spiritual power and brilliance that still attracts admiration today. He whom popular devotion has nominated as finder of lost objects found himself by losing himself totally to the providence of God.” We should all be responsive to this direction to turn our lives completely over to Christ, for with God all things are possible. We’ve proven that to a large extent with the obstacles, even mountains, that have come before us.

Peace and blessings to all as we conclude this school year and finalize our plans for the next.

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