Conference of Catholic leaders focuses on future of schools

More than 6,000 Catholic teachers, administrators and other educators launched a three-day national conference Tuesday morning at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center with spirited worship, upbeat talks and cheers for the successes of Catholic schools.

A marching band even serenaded the attendees, courtesy of Seton-La Salle and Central Catholic high schools.

But an array of concerns also pervaded the conference, from declining enrollment and rising costs to a sense of siege amid the wider secular environment and culture-war issues.

The National Catholic Educational Association conference is drawing educators from schools ranging from elementary to university levels as well as parishes and seminaries.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., the former bishop of Pittsburgh, gave the opening keynote address. He said Catholic schools provide a bulwark against a “tsunami” of secularism in the wider culture, sweeping away Christian concepts of “marriage, family, the concept of right and wrong,” he said.

Catholic education, he said, has to be about more than academics. It has to follow recent popes’ calls for a “new evangelization” toward those who grew up Catholic but have become distant or estranged from the faith.

“Catholic schools work,” Cardinal Wuerl said, in academic terms and in passing on the faith.

He lauded the Pittsburgh diocese for opening a new high school in the northern suburbs, “which I think is a sign of the vibrancy of Catholic education,” but he acknowledged many older schools in urban areas are declining or closing.

He and Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh said their dioceses have worked to keep a Catholic school presence even in poorer communities partly by switching away from a parish-based to a broader-based funding model.

Catholic elementary and secondary school enrollment stands at just under 2 million, down 20 percent from a decade ago, according to association statistics.

Brother Robert Bimonte, president of the association, attributed the decline to, “in a word, finances.”

“Parents of young children don’t have a large amount of disposable income,” he said.

According to the association’s latest report, the mean parish school tuition is $3,880, not counting parish and other subsidies. “That’s a lot of money for a young family.”

But he added: “Many of our schools have waiting lists. Catholic education is alive and well, no question about it.”

Christina Mendez, principal of St. Peter the Apostle Catholic School near Fort Worth, Texas, said she was energized by Cardinal Wuerl’s talk. She came to the conference looking for ideas on how to reverse the school’s enrollment declines and how to teach combined-grade classrooms. “Cost is a very big issue,” she said.

Peter Smith:, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith. First Published April 22, 2014 2:07 PM

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