Category Archives: Proclaim

Running Towards the Danger: Early Learnings from Catholic Schools in the Midst of the Pandemic

The following blog was contributed by John Reyes, Ed.D., executive director of operational vitality at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in Arlington, VA.

“Over time, even an academically rigorous school with strong Catholic identity will not survive without operational vitality.” – National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools, 2020

While much attention has been drawn to the academic and spiritual response of Catholic schools to the pandemic – are you tired of Zoom yet? – there is more we can and ought to learn about the operational response from Catholic schools. Catholic schools, while operating first and foremost as an apostolate of the Church and in service of the Great Commission, also happen to be businesses – “temporal organizations” with which school leaders are charged to operate in the four key areas of finances, human resources/personnel, facilities and institutional advancement.

In a survey we conducted with our membership and led by Annie Smith, our director of research and data management, we sought to gather insight on school and diocesan responses to the pandemic. (You can view a summary of the data set here.)

After analyzing an advance copy of the data with participants at our Catholic Leadership Summit last week, I pulled out a few key findings that helped to illustrate how Catholic school leaders “ran towards the danger” in responding to the pandemic:

  • The vast majority of Catholic schools across the nation are operating with at least part-time in-person instruction, with no major outbreaks or transmission of COVID-19 being reported. Only 8% of school leaders who responded were operating completely virtually, with the vast majority of those school leaders in California (and in Los Angeles’s 70,000+ student Catholic school system, the first wave of schools were granted waivers and opened in-person instruction to early elementary students this week). The lack of major outbreaks or transmission in Catholic schools substantiates prior nationwide research suggesting that schools, particularly elementary schools, pose minimal risk in terms of the spread of the disease.
  • Early infusions of cash from the state and federal level to support schools and businesses were crucial in addressing the uncertain financial position brought about by the pandemic. 91% of diocesan leaders and 78% of school leaders reported utilizing state and federal funding as a strategy to bolster finances over the last seven months. Conversely, only 37% of school leaders reported using savings to cover operating deficits; depending on the already fragile nature of school budgets and lack of clarity around future funding support for schools at the state and federal level, we may start to see many more schools touch “rainy-day funds.”
  • Leaders saw the use of technology as the most lasting change to “business-as-usual.” Despite problems with technology procurement, including delays and cost, 83% of diocesan leaders and 71% of school leaders said that improving or strengthening educational technology as a positive aspect of the shift in operations due to COVID-19. Sixty percent  of school and diocesan leaders also stated that they intended to make technology-related changes permanent, even after the pandemic.

Our findings also raised some important questions and considerations, particularly as it relates to how we best move forward:

  • How will schools respond to the challenge of retention? One crucial piece of data that the survey was less than definitive on was the impact of the pandemic on school or diocesan Catholic school enrollment. While some schools and dioceses saw notable and even double-digit percentage point increases in enrollment, there were plenty of enrollment declines that mirrored or exceeded similar declines during the late 2000s. We are convinced, probably now more than ever, that offering in-person instruction matters greatly to parents – but how can school leaders experiencing enrollment growth sustain their pandemic-related boosts, particularly as more public and charter schools begin to return to in-person instruction? 
  • What will staffing in schools and dioceses look like going forward? Salaries and benefits comprise the majority of most school operating budgets, yet in the midst of severe economic downturn, a mere 37% of schools reduced staff to address their uncertain financial position. Only “increasing advancement events” ranked lower in terms of strategies used by school leaders. We know that staffing has been an operational concern in Catholic schools for quite some time now – our own data at NCEA tells us that despite a two-thirds drop in enrollment from 1960 to 2017, staffing levels have remained exactly the same (!) – but could this be the moment where the levee finally breaks?
  • How are leaders choosing to make temporary strategies permanent? At the Catholic Leadership Summit last week, many diocesan leaders analyzing an advance copy of the data noted that leaders considered the majority of the new strategies implemented in the areas of enrollment, finance, marketing, staffing and advancement as temporary. It’s hard to tell whether respondents are “waiting things out” to see whether those temporary strategies are worth maintaining going forward, or if there is full intent to return back to business as usual in those areas once a sense of relative normalcy is restored. That said, we must see crisis as an opportunity for innovation and as an opportunity for things to be “born anew” – could there be strategies and tactics that, instead of being bound to the graveyard of reactive and short-term change, shine a path for a new chapter of vitality and vibrancy for Catholic schools?

We invite you to look at the data for yourself – let us know what resonates with you, what aligns with your experiences, what you’d like to learn more about. A commitment to challenging our preconceived notions, testing our presumptions and asking questions only serves to strengthen and not undermine the shared work we do in leading and sustaining vibrant Catholic schools.

Serving God Through Serving Others

The following blog was contributed by Eileen Mostyn, a senior at the University of Notre Dame and summer intern for the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).

From the time I entered preschool at age three, up until now, as I prepare to begin my senior year of college, Catholic education has been a constant in my life. In fact, I’ve never known any other form of education. During that time, I have found that there are many features of Catholic education that don’t change much, no matter your grade level. There was a crucifix hanging in my kindergarten classroom, in my high school chemistry lab, and in my university lecture halls. I have been regularly attending Mass with classmates for eighteen years. Every school cafeteria and dining hall in which I’ve eaten has been meat-free on Fridays in Lent.

There is one particular thing that has been present in every level of my Catholic education, however, which I feel has made the greatest impact on the person I am today, and the person I will continue to grow to be: service. Throughout my life, I have been raised knowing the importance of serving others in everything that I do. All of my teachers and school administrators impressed upon my classmates and me the idea that if we wanted to be servants of God, we must first be servants to others. From food drives to visits to nursing homes, service has been central to every school community of which I’ve been a part.

Even now, in my upper-level economics classes, our professors encourage us to consider the results of our decisions. Is the economically efficient outcome always the best moral outcome? How do we make sound economic decisions, while also doing as much good as possible? There is a larger sense of responsibility in these questions than in the question of whether I could bring canned goods into school for the food drive, but the central question remains the same as it always was: how can I use what I have and what I know to serve other people? My Catholic education prepared me to be able to think carefully about these questions, and helped cultivate in me a desire to find the answers and live my life in service to others.

Through Catholic education, we are able to do so much more than just share knowledge with students; we are able to share values with them which will shape who they grow up to be. The values that were shared with me from the time I was three years old are certainly still with me. My elementary school’s motto is central to my belief system to this day: “Serving God Through Serving Others”. Importantly, I was not only exposed to these words, but to teachers, school leaders, priests and parents who truly lived them. I feel very fortunate to have been raised by and around so many people who were constantly striving to live their lives in service to others. Without their example, the words telling me the importance of service would have been meaningless.

The way we teach our children matters. As people involved in Catholic education, we have the very important, and very exciting, role of shaping the minds and hearts of tomorrow’s leaders. Catholic educators everywhere are doing the amazing work of showing children how they can live out this call to service. It is through the action of service, an action which is central to the mission of Catholic education, that we are able to teach our children how to be servants of God by being servants of others.

Finding a New Purpose for NCEA 2020 Convention Bags

The following blog was contributed by Kathy Mears, Interim President/CEO at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in Arlington, VA. The Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago filled unused bags from the cancelled NCEA 2020 Convention & Expo to take care of food distribution and the local shower program. Kathleen Donahue-Coia, acting president & CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, said the bags helped the immediate need for food and personal items for the increased numbers of clients in the Chicago area.

Some of the plans for the NCEA 2020 Convention & Expo couldn’t be undone. The Chicago-based company Integra Graphics Synergy had already printed 4,000 Convention bags. What to do with them? The company generously offered to deliver the bags within a reasonable distance from their plant. Catholic Charities office in Gary, IN had a perfect use for the bags – food distribution. 

The onset of the pandemic stressed most food pantries around the country. Catholic Charities USA was no exception. While keeping the pantries full for the increased need in many communities, Catholic Charities also needed bags in which to pack the food. 

Starting with Patricia Cole and Jane Stenson of Catholic Charities USA, the offer of thousands of bags went out to the closest locations to Chicago. Joanne Pivarnik of Gary was able to accept one thousand bags to help with packing and delivering food. 

Other local Chicago area food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters were able to put the other bags to work.

El Paso’s Bishop Mark Seitz: Black lives matter

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, kneels at El Paso’s Memorial Park holding a Black Lives Matter sign June 1. Seitz and other clergy from the diocese prayed and kneeled for eight minutes, the time George Floyd, an unarmed black man, spent under a police officer’s knee before dying May 25. (CNS/Courtesy of El Paso Diocese/Fernie Ceniceros)

This article was written by Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas and originally published by The National Catholic Reporter on June 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

I think that sometimes we can fall into the trap of thinking that Christianity is a dead letter religion. That it’s about things that happened a long time ago or about words on a page.

But every day at Mass, when I kneel before Jesus in the Eucharist, I’m reminded that he is alive and present. That Christianity is an event happening right now. The drama of salvation is something playing out every day. And we all have a role to play.

I taught liturgy in seminary. In good liturgy, our faith is brought to life. I think what we’ve seen play out over the last couple days is maybe a little bit like liturgy.

The other day I saw a video of a young white woman at a protest near the White House who put her body in front of a young kneeling black teenager as police officers in riot gear approached. As Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

It’s a scene of solidarity and self-giving that has played out across the country so many times in the last week. In El Paso, Texas, there were two young police officers who knelt down with protesters during a demonstration here and it helped defuse some tension.

There is something profoundly eucharistic about these moments and I’m so inspired by our young people. They are teaching us something.

When religion becomes stagnant, we can forget that the Word always comes to us crucified and powerless. As James Cone put it, in America, the Word comes tortured, black and lynched. Today, we meet Jesus in those tear-gassed, tased, strangled and snuffed out. That’s the reason why the church teaches a preferential option for the poor. And why the church stands up for life wherever and whenever it is devalued and threatened.

To say, as all who eat from the table of the Eucharist should be able to say, that black lives matter is just another way of repeating something we in the United States seem to so often forget, that God has a special love for the forgotten and oppressed.

Many are understandably upset by the destruction and looting. It’s true, none of us should crave the thrill of violence or revenge. That’s wrong. We also need to recognize that we are seeing the effects of centuries of sin and violence and rights denied playing themselves out. And frankly, civil rights are not enough. That’s the minimum and clearly, we’re not there yet. We also need to be building a society with housing, and education and health care and just wages for all as well as the right to migrate. And then we can begin to heal.

My brother bishop in Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich, suggested we should be less quick to judge the proportionality of “their” response and start talking about the proportionality of “ours.” We also need to remember what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

I think leaders in the church today, and leaders everywhere really, should perhaps say a little less right now. Instead, we should stand with and give the microphone and listen to those who have been unheard for too long. To those who have suffered our shameful history of discrimination and racial profiling and police brutality. To those who are putting their bodies on the line in protest and in defense of others.

Let’s look at the grace in all of this. Look at the witness of those who are bravely taking up their parts in the drama of salvation unfolding in front of us. If we look past the static, they’re pointing the way to redemptive transformation. They are showing us what the reign of God looks like and what our country can look like when we all have a place at the table. Let’s encourage them. And pray with them. And thank them.

With grace, they are joining the living ranks of a long faith tradition of laborers for greater justice, like Moses, Jesus of Nazareth, Joan of Arc, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James Earl Chaney, Oscar Romero, Thea Bowman and so many others. Thank God. Thank God.

[Mark J. Seitz is the bishop of El Paso, a diocese in West Texas on the U.S.-Mexico border.]

Communication IS Connection: Learning from the Pandemic Crisis

The following blog was contributed by Clare Kilbane, Ph.D., a faculty member, senior learning designer, and Catholic school liaison at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. Follow her on Twitter @ClareRKilbane

The fact that people are no longer permitted to gather physically in schools makes it abundantly clear that “schools,” are much more than buildings. Catholic schools are faith-based, faith-filled communities that are uniquely equipped to offer the spiritual, emotional, educational, and material support needed in difficult times.  Catholic school leaders realize this and are working to re-establish their school community at a distance using new tools and techniques. The current, disrupted educational environment is helping Catholic school leaders recognize the important role effective communication plays in connecting their community. Because no other means are available in a virtual space, communication IS connection! It both creates community and enables people to give and receive care.

At the moment, critical communication “gaps” are being illuminated because everyone is forced to connect at a distance using (almost exclusively) planned, asynchronous, technology-mediated means. Although these problems are always present, usually only some members of the community experience them. During typical times, informal connections, specifically real-time, personal, face-to-face relationships, supplement formal communication for a majority of families. Often, those who are “on the fringe” (e.g., those who are not socially connected, are not fluent in English, or have limited access to technology, etc.) are “out of the loop” and excluded from full engagement in the community. In Catholic schools, where the involvement of every community member is considered an essential part of the mission, school communication plans must be “ordered” to promote this connection for everyone, and especially those who are most marginalized. 

The following suggestions, inspired by what has been learned during the pandemic, will lead to a more effective and inclusive school communication plan for the 2020-21 school year.

Refine procedures regarding family contact information: When schools began distance learning weeks ago, many experienced unanticipated problems maintaining contact with families. The phone numbers, email addresses, and other data on file were often found to be incorrect. This made it apparent that an annual collection process for this data is no longer sufficient. More regular and careful attention is needed. Catholic schools will be served by employing practices used in the healthcare industry, where key personal interactions (e.g., phone calls, office visits, etc.) become routine times to confirm and update contact information. Every school communication plan should articulate a procedure for a) when, in what ways, and how often contact information will be updated and checked, as well as b) a plan for ensuring that families who are at special risk of losing contact (and may also need extra care) will remain connected. 

Develop practices for archiving school communications: In the early days of the pandemic, everyone felt overwhelmed. The volume of messages sent to families at different times, from various school staff, and using a variety of communication channels contributed to this. Rather than reducing stress and making remote learning procedures easier to implement, confusion and anxiety were increased by uncoordinated communication. Schools that were already implementing the practice of archiving all communication outputs in one location (regardless of who sent them and when) realized a great benefit in keeping a single, shared electronic repository. Using a password-protected web space made accessible to all community members, school newsletters, weekly updates, official emails, and other vital information can be made available from a hyperlinked index and organized by date. This practice makes it easier for everyone in the school community to keep up-to-date with important information and ensures that all can remain connected and engaged with the community. Special energy should be invested in arranging for all families to gain full access to this archive. This might mean offering special one-on-one technology tutorials or language translations.

Make plans for greater coordination, transparency, and access: Since remote learning began, school leaders have gained a greater appreciation for the unique and special circumstances of the families they serve. This information should be built into the formal communication plan every school needs to have. Such plans will enable greater coordination, transparency, and access. At a minimum, a plan should include: a) an inventory of the school and classroom communication channels currently in use (e.g., quarterly bulletins, school newsletters, classroom updates, website, social media, etc.), b) information about each channel’s purpose(s) and scope of use, c) details about the timing, frequency, and protocols that govern their production and distribution, d) an explanation of how the use of different channels will be coordinated, e) a plan that supports universal access to all families, and f) a procedure for communicating this information to the community.

Catholic schools that wish to create a community that reflects the love Christ has for all will benefit from considering the influence communication has on achieving this goal. Catholic school leaders should be sure to study the communications-related issues that emerge during the COVID-19 crisis and develop practices, policies, and plans designed to include their members who experience the most barriers to communication. If they do, they will find these plans assist all community members and contribute to creating a more vibrant, beautiful school community.

Your School’s Catholic Identity: Name It, Claim It, and Build on It

The following blog was contributed by Max Engel, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and co-author of Your School’s Catholic Identity: Name It, Claim It, and Build on It, with co-authors Barbara Brock, Ed.D., Timothy J. Cook, Ph.D., Ronald D. Fussell, Ed.D., Jean Louise Hearn, Ed.D. and Fr. Tom Simonds, SJ, Ed.D.

Which comes first, a Catholic school’s mission or identity? At first this seems like a tough question, a Catholic-school variation of the “chicken or the egg” conundrum. However, a different analogy effectively illuminates the current question: To put mission before identity is like preparing for a trip without knowing why or where you are going. The trip might work out, you might get lucky and find yourself at a national park with a tent, bug spray, camp stove, and sleeping bag, but you may wind up taking that same equipment on a trip to see a Broadway show, which would have a host of problems! In short, the why of our trip guides what we pack and what we do. It’s the same thing for a Catholic school’s identity in relation to its mission: The why, or identity, of a Catholic school precedes the what, or mission, of a school.

A far more productive question for a school’s identity and mission than asking “Which comes first?” is asking “How can my school deepen its commitment to its Catholic identity and so more fruitfully live out its mission?” It was this question at a 2016 NCEA Institute for Catholic School Leaders that prompted my co-authors and I to write Your School’s Catholic Identity: Name It, Claim It, and Build on It. We had seen the increased emphasis on Catholic school mission in the previous decade or so and were heartened by the reception of the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools but were also aware of Catholic school leaders’ questions in response that could be summed: “How do I do that?” Leaders can do this most effectively by drawing on their school’s identity to inform every aspect of the school, making certain the “what” or mission of the school manifests and deepens its why or “identity.”

The first chapter of the book provides a theological basis for Catholic schools. For example, asking about the Catholic identity of your school is in fact a deeply theological question. Fr. Michael Himes begins his 1995 book Doing the Truth in Love with the seemingly simple question, “Who are you?”, but he could have easily asked: “Why are you?” or “What’s your why?” to use Simon Sinek’s well-known question (2009). Fr. Himes then demonstrates that our typical responses are inadequate: our name, age, height, vocation, anything we usually respond—all those are descriptions, not definitions. You as an individual can describe but not define yourself because the very core of your existence, your definition, rests in God who is ultimately a mystery to us. You can ask the same question of your Catholic school: “Who are you? What’s your why?” and again you might be tempted to answer with your school’s name, location, enrollment, grades taught, founding order, or mascot, but all those attributes, important as they are, describe your school but do not define it. Your school’s “why,” its core identity, is a part of the Body of Christ that is the Catholic Church and is continuously revealed to the extent that the community is aware of and cultivates its relationship with God through his son Jesus Christ. The remainder of that first chapter builds on both the Nicene Creed and the “Defining Characteristics of Catholic Schools” from the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools and includes important religious faith terms for all Catholic schools.

Throughout the book we ask you what your school already is doing based on its Catholic identity, how that can be more explicitly articulated, and ultimately more significantly incorporated or celebrated. For example, in different chapters we invite you to consider how your school’s Catholic identity informs hiring school personnel, planning spiritual formation of faculty and staff, developing the academic curriculum, recruiting new students and families, and making wise decisions for financial stewardship; in all there are fourteen chapters, plus robust references and appendices.

We envisioned a book that could be the base of a series of workshops or ongoing professional development. Each chapter includes discussion prompts, checklists, and thought exercises for you and your team to evaluate aspects of your school and discuss further. The appendices include helpful graphic organizers. Further, every chapter is indexed to the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools and includes a short list of further resources relevant to the chapter’s topics.

The other day my daughter’s Catholic school administration sent all parents a survey that “focuses on Catholic identity,” which turned out to be the “Catholic Identity Program Effectiveness: Parent/Community Survey” available through the Catholic School Standards Project. Collecting information in an ongoing manner from all constituents is a crucial first step for naming, claiming, and building on a school’s Catholic identity. This book is a good guide to the necessary subsequent steps to make sure that your Catholic identity guides your school’s mission and is at the core of every aspect of the school.

Defining a Value Proposition as Part of the School Marketing Plan

This blog was contributed by Maria A. Ippolito of Partners in Mission, a full-service consulting and professional education firm focused exclusively on developing excellence in Catholic school advancement and leadership.

When we talk about marketing in our schools, we tend to focus on things, like brochures, billboards and branding. We want the shiny new logo and the perfectly designed view book. No doubt, these elements are key components of any marketing campaign, but before you can embark on the branding process, you need to define your value proposition.

“Value proposition” can feel like an intimidating term, but really it is quite simple. It is the answer to the question what makes your school unique? What makes your school special? What are the key differentiators that make your school stand out from the competition? At the most basic level, your value proposition answers the question- Why would someone (spend money to) send their child to your school? Answering this question is the most important thing you can do when creating your marketing plan. You need to come back to the question over and over again and answer it multiple times to multiple audiences.  It’s the central component in any marketing plan.

It’s important to keep in mind that for years, “Catholic and safe” were the compelling key differentiators from the FREE competition. Parents no longer view this persuasive enough. Catholic and safe are inherent elements of your school’s value proposition and core messages, but we need to tell them more.

Our value proposition must also delve into the why rather than just the what. While it is ok to list all the wonderful programs that your school offers, it becomes truly compelling when you explain why you offer these programs and the outcomes of such programs. In other words, a laundry list of after school clubs is ok, but an even better approach is to go beyond the list and explain that after school programs offer an enhancement to the daily curriculum and build well rounded children who develop leadership skills and succeed in high school and beyond.

A few more things to consider as you prepare your school’s value proposition.

  • Consider your target audience (typically a parent of a young child). What are their needs? Concerns? What is the problem you can solve for them?
  • When considering your target audience, think about the language that is most appealing to them. Does a parent really understand educational language?
  • Your value proposition MUST be genuine. You cannot call yourself a STEM school if you only offer basic science and math courses.
  • You’ll need to prove it and think through the most compelling ways to “prove” your value. Some aspiration is fine, but all aspiration isn’t credible.
  • Consider including testimonial statements as “proof” for most if not all of the core messages. Families value hearing validation from multiple sources.
  • Pictures are incredibly powerful in all marketing materials, but they must be high quality.  A low-quality, grainy image doesn’t nearly have the same impact of a clear image and, in fact, it sends a negative message.  Also, large group shots typically don’t have the same impact that a more focused image including 1 or only several students.
  • Like photos, a video is a powerful tool to tell your story in a more complete way.
  • Social media is a powerful place to tell your story so please include that in your communications of the value proposition.

Your value proposition is the most essential component of your marketing plan. It is your DNA and your brand in word form.  Once your value proposition is communicated regularly and compellingly to your audience, it will empower parents to tell your story and it will allow them to understand the true value of a Catholic education.

Parental Duties – in the Womb and Throughout Life

This blog was contributed by Brittany Vessely, executive director of Catholic Education Partners in Thornton, Colorado.

As of the end of October, the start of the 40 Days for Life, I am 25 weeks pregnant and closing in on my third trimester with my baby boy in the womb. He is my husband and my first child. While I was pro-life prior to conceiving, carrying my child has made me appreciate the fullness of his life even more.

I am also an education policy advocate. I run a nonprofit that advocates for parental rights over their children’s education options. Specifically, Catholic Education Partners’ purpose is to allow more families and children to enjoy the amazing benefits of a Catholic education, using the tax dollars allocated for their children’s public education. We do this by promoting financial access through state policies and ensuring that our schools and students have their religious liberties protected when state funds are given to Catholic schools for students’ tuition.

My work is constantly advocating for parental rights. But beyond rights, there are duties.

Politics and culture could best be described as two tides with an ocean in-between. They push against each other. Laws shape culture, as much as culture dictate laws. This is true in education policy and in pro-life/pro-choice policy. Everyone appeals to positive, human, and natural rights, but not many appeal to duties.

The truth is that as a new parent, with my child in the womb, I am keenly aware of my baby’s right to life – but I am also equally aware of my duty as his mother to make sure he is healthy, safe, loved, and when he enters this world on his own, he is reared in the Church, given the sacraments, and educated and formed both in the faith and to be a good citizen. That is my duty as his parent, from conception and throughout his life.

Working in public policy, I am encouraged by new legislation introduced to protect life. For instance, on October 22, the South Carolina House of Representatives passed a “heartbeat bill,” which would ban abortions after a preborn child’s heartbeat can be detected, usually around 5-weeks gestation. Doctors who perform abortions after the heartbeat can be detected would face criminal charges under this law. The bill is expected to hit the Senate floor in January and Governor McMaster has already stated he will sign it into law.

Likewise, every year, every state considers education reforms that will re-empower parents with their children’s education decision-making authority. It is a battle every year, but as of 2019, over 500,000 children are using state-funding to attend private schools with state scholarships. And about 40 percent of them are attending Catholic schools. As 40 Days for Life commences, we must remember we are fighting for children’s right to life, but it is also our right and duty as parents and members of society to make sure these babies are cared for, loved, raised in the faith and given an opportunity for a quality education. Our duties to them are for life, from conception and throughout their lives.

Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord!

This blog was contributed by Jacqueline Leary-Warsaw, D.M.A., Dean of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, Drama, and Art at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Colossians 3:16). Saint Paul is only one of many prominent Church figures throughout history to recognize and profess the power of sacred music. Not only is music an avenue for us to praise God, but it is also a means for God to speak to us, and what better way is there for us to open this conversation with the Divine to our children than through sacred music. The American Federation Pueri Cantores (“AFPC”) does just that.

I was anxious to become involved with AFPC when Executive Director Jan Schmidt invited me to join the board of directors, because I know that participation in AFPC events is often life-changing for the young choristers. These youth are able to develop cultural compassion by travelling to the many festivals both in the U.S. and abroad, and they initiate and maintain friendships with other singers from all over the globe. In his World Day of Peace message for 2019, Pope Francis remarked, “Human relations are complex, especially in our own times, marked by a climate of mistrust rooted in the fear of others or of strangers, or anxiety about one’s personal security.” By singing in member choirs of AFPC, our children, the leaders of the future, are engaging with the “strangers” to which Pope Francis referred and as such actively loving their neighbors as themselves and creating a community in Christ.

As a singer myself, I can understand the vulnerability that prevents individuals from singing out on their own or in small groups. The students who participate in AFPC festivals and events often find themselves raising their voices in praise with hundreds of other students and building their confidence to actively participate in the liturgy and thus deepening their encounter with Christ. In his letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul urges to “Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion” (Ephesians 6:18). Through song, these students are engaging in prayer regularly and are strengthening their spiritual well-being.

AFPC is an organization deserving of support from all who enjoy and are enriched by sacred music. It acts as a resource through its performances and festivals by providing sacred and spiritual music to the public and exposing listeners to the joy that is found in singing praise to God. It offers our youth the opportunity to engage with others, challenges them to become better singers and better citizens, and exposes them to music they may not otherwise learn to enjoy. AFPC provides an avenue for us to support the arts in our schools and communities in a time when they are increasingly threatened to be cut. The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes the importance of music when it says, “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this preeminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy.” By supporting AFPC, I know that I’m doing my part to keep arts alive in the community, promote the appreciation of sacred music, and foster the relationship between young people and the Church.