About two dozen members of the Keeping the Faith: The Future of Catholic Elementary Schools task force attended Mass and an in-person meeting on June 7 at SS. Robert and William Parish in Euclid.
Organized and hosted by Father John Betters, SS. Robert and William pastor and a member of the steering committee, the event included Mass celebrated by Father Don Oleksiak, vicar general and moderator of the curia – who also is a steering committee member – lunch and a discussion.
In his homily, Father Oleksiak told the group that Catholic education is “a great gift that was given to us after a great struggle.” He said we come together as people of faith asking the Lord to nourish us and we hold on to the hope that he will continue nourishing, encouraging and supporting us.
“There will be good times and some tough times ahead, but God will see us through and continue to provide opportunities to share the faith with our young people who are so hungry and in need of this,” he said, encouraging them to rely on and trust in the Lord. “Keep the faith,” he added.
Father Betters reported on a series of meetings and a survey from which input about Catholic education was received from priests. They represented a cross section of the presbyterate, including pastors of parishes with and without schools, parochial vicars at parishes with and without schools, retired priests and those in special ministry.
“We’ve been talking about this for a long time and people are hungry for something,” Father Betters said.
The consensus after the priest meetings is that there is a real need for Catholic schools – those that are unapologetically Catholic – he added.
There may be a disconnect between some parishes and schools, so it’s important to deliberately invite school families into the life of the school, parish and Church. New leaders – including among the priests – need to be identified. Other issues that evolved from the priest sessions were the definition of a healthy school since that varies throughout the diocese; the need to give priests a voice in finances – which could spark other conversations; accountability; the need for marketing – especially for elementary schools; how to focus on saving a troubled school instead of simply opting to close it; and considering regionalization.
“Priests are committed to Catholic schools and are happy to be asked for input, but would really like a plan,” Father Betters said. He pointed out that the Catholic schools are a system of schools, not a school system.
Tracey Arnone, associate superintendent of Catholic schools for the diocese and a member of the steering committee, said the next step is for subcommittees to crystalize recommendations for change and change ideas that will be presented at the October task force plenary meeting. She said since April, committees have been identifying themes, priorities and possible strategies, moving from initial facts and findings to proposed changes. Their work will continue through the summer with each committee preparing a rough draft strategic recommendation to present by mid-September.
At the October plenary meeting, committee recommendations will be the primary focus, with a presentation from each committee. Stakeholder listening sessions will begin in late October or November.
“We heard in detail from the priests and now we need input from the broader group,” said Frank O’Linn, superintendent of Catholic schools for the diocese and a steering committee member.
The Keeping the Faith initiative was announced in early February during Catholic Schools Week by Bishop Edward Malesic. Its mission is to ensure that high quality, vibrant Catholic schools will be accessible and as affordable as possible to all. It evolved from a think tank created in 2019 by former Cleveland bishop and now Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson Perez to examine and strengthen all aspects of youth ministry.
“Since coming to the Diocese of Cleveland last fall, I have come to see that one of our greatest treasures are our Catholic schools,” Bishop Malesic said. In the eight-county diocese, there are 87 elementary and 20 high schools that educate more than 37,000 students.
The task force consists of about 50 members who are charged with creating a plan with objectives, strategies and tactics to keep schools in the diocese grounded in the Catholic faith, academically excellent and as widely available and affordable as possible. Members of the task force represent a cross section of the diocese: clergy, school staff, diocesan staff, members of the business community, past or current parents of Catholic school students and experts in education.
The group is to present the bishop with a strategic plan for Catholic elementary schools by May 2022. After reviewing the plan with additional consultation, he hopes to implement the plan in the 2022-2023 school year.