Push for Philadelphia's Catholic schools must continue

Posted: February 26, 2012

A.J. Thomson

is a Catholic school parent in Fishtown

When I was an altar boy, we would line up in the sacristy before Mass. Father would give the signal, the closer of the two altar boys would ring the bell, and the congregation would rise to greet the procession.

In much the same way in recent weeks, thousands of the region's faithful rose to meet the threatened closing of Catholic schools. We heard God's call, just as congregants hear the bell for Mass, and we listened. And like any struggle for one's identity, it made us better.

When Archbishop Charles Chaput granted the appeals of three-quarters of the elementary schools and then all the high schools targeted for closure, it touched off ebullient celebrations throughout the region, provoking more impromptu prayer services, tears, cheers, and recitations of "Thank You, God" than anything in recent memory.

The archdiocesan officials who delivered the news of the reprieves looked as if they were in the receiving line at their own funerals. Their morose expressions underscored the vast distance between those who want Catholic education and those who have concocted a Byzantine system for telling us we can't have it.

I send my oldest child to Catholic school, and I will do the same for my other children. I'm proud of it, just as my parents were when they sent me to Catholic school. Why wouldn't I be, since I believe it to be the best education system in the city? I care so much about it that I pay for it, and tens of thousands join me in doing so.

At a time when public school budgets are tight and funding is scarce, Catholic schools demonstrate that parents who care, a culture of discipline and responsibility, and great teachers can deliver high-quality education for a fraction of the cost of other models. Right now, Catholic schools have a moral duty not only to continue, but to expand.

The new doctrine suggesting that a parish shouldn't support a school seems to come from a mail-order business-school curriculum, not the tradition of Catholicism as we know it in Philadelphia. The paramount aim of our church should be to educate and instill our faith in as many of its young people as possible. For centuries, it has been. Only now is the principle being questioned by a few.

Jesus watched a poor widow put her last coins in the treasury, and he marveled that she had given all that she had. Today, tens of thousands of Catholics do the same with their tuition checks each month. Sometimes, it's all they have.

The recommended school closings that the archbishop rightly ripped to shreds were at odds with that biblical story. Jesus would marvel at what these families are giving to his church in the hopes of imparting his teachings to their children. He would not hire consultants and influence-peddlers to tell them his parishes were spending too much money.

The last few weeks have felt like a war for many of us. We were fighting for our very identity as Catholics. During an actual war, Abraham Lincoln learned that some generals were afraid of the fight, that their conviction was on their lips instead of in their guts. If we have learned anything in this battle for Catholic education, it is that it's time to ditch the McClellans - the generals who shrink from a challenge.

It seems like a novel idea, but we Catholic school parents make up a large portion of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. We should be asking the archbishop to promote the Grants and Shermans - those who raised $5 million in a month for Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast High School; those who taught us that the Bambies (of St. Hubert) aren't timid deer; those who marched with candles through their neighborhoods; those who believe in Catholic education for anyone who wants it - poor, rich, or, like a lot of us, somewhere in between.

It's time to reassert Catholic education's prominence. Rather than retreat, Catholic schools should be on the march.

Bruce Springsteen, a Catholic kid from across the river, wrote a line I keep in mind when the going gets tough: "You can't start a fire without a spark." The congregation has risen. We have that spark. Let's harness the energy from this fire, instead of listening to those who are paid to try to extinguish it.

A.J. Thomson can be reached at ajthomson7@gmail.com.