Archbishop Donald Wuerl gives the keynote address at the Oct. 5 Convocation on Catholic Education.
CS photo by Rafael Crisostomo
Archbishop Donald Wuerl gives the keynote address at the Oct. 5 Convocation on Catholic Education. CS photo by Rafael Crisostomo
Catholic school leaders and other Archdiocese of Washington officials must work together to ensure that an affordable Catholic education is made available to families across the archdiocese, Archbishop Donald Wuerl said Friday.

The archbishop, delivering the keynote address at the archdiocesan Convocation on Catholic Education, stressed the archdiocese's "commitment to sustain affordable, accessible education within the reach of Catholic families."

Nearly 500 Catholic school principals, parish educational leaders, pastors, priests and archdiocesan officials gathered Oct. 5 at Trinity University in Northeast Washington to examine the challenges facing Catholic schools and to plan how to meet those challenges. Participants also included directors of religious education and representatives from parish pastoral councils, finance councils and school advisory boards.

Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, archdiocesan superintendent for Catholic schools, called the convocation a "positive" event, and said participants were "very thankful and appreciative that they were provided so much information in so much detail."

"People left with a clear understanding of the challenges before us," Weitzel-O'Neill said.

In stressing the need to make Catholic education affordable, Archbishop Wuerl said there must be an "equitable distribution (of the cost of operating Catholic schools) spread across the archdiocese."

He also said there must be an archdiocesan-wide tuition assistance program. He said that tuition at Catholic schools should reflect the true costs of educating children, and that tuition assistance must be made available to qualified families.

Archbishop Wuerl said Catholic schools must remain accessible to all who seek a Catholic education and "we must make an effort to preserve schools. We should have Catholic schools available across the archdiocese."

The convocation was closed to the press except for the archbishop's keynote address.

After the convocation, Msgr. Barry Knestout, the archdiocese's vicar for administration and the moderator of the curia, said that during the convocation, participants discussed four key issues related to local Catholic schools:

¥ Catholic identity

¥ the excellence of the schools

¥ affordability

¥ accessibility

He said that at the end of the convocation, a consensus was reached that the archdiocese will engage in a strategic planning process to help plan the future of local Catholic schools.

Participants, Msgr. Knestout said, agreed "there's a need for us to work together as an archdiocese, the leadership of all our schools and parishes, to look to the future with the strategic planning process, to help us develop policies to strengthen and sustain our Catholic schools into the future."

Thomas Burnford, archdiocesan secretary of Catholic education, said the convocation gave teachers, principals and others "the opportunity to dialogue, and they requested continued dialogue on the state of Catholic schools in the future."

He noted that his office will issue next week a "more detailed report" about the convocation.

"People want to move ahead and develop a strategy to ensure we have a bright future of affordability and accessibility," Burnford said. "Through the planning and formation of an education strategy, with all the leadership involved, we can secure a bright future for Catholic schools."

When he announced the gathering last February, Archbishop Wuerl said participants would "specifically talk and strategize about education, and how to keep it affordable and accessible."

"Good people, working people who love their kids want them to have the best education. Making the best education affordable is going to be more and more a challenge," Archbishop Wuerl said in announcing the convocation last February.

At the Oct. 5 gathering, he urged convocation participants to consider "how do we sustain, foster and maintain (Catholic) schools" and to have "a vision and strategy rooted in the conviction all of us have in the value of Catholic education."

Sustaining Catholic education is vital, Archbishop Wuerl said, because it is part of "that great commissioning that Christ gave us."

"It unites us in a unique way with Christ Jesus. We pass on the life-giving words," he said. "It has brought for 2,000 years an encounter with Jesus Christ. It does this in a world not always prepared to hear this message."

He said the "framework" of Catholic education is based on "the wisdom of God and the possibility of new life."

"We (Catholic schools) pass on the words of everlasting life," Archbishop Wuerl said. "Our connectedness to Christ is found in the continuity of the Church. At the heart of our Catholic schools is the Catholic faith. We bring the [Gospel] message to every student in our care."

Catholic schools bring Christ to the community, he said, adding that "Catholic schools teach in the name of and on behalf of the faith."

He also said that a Catholic education provides students with "academic excellence, faith formation and confidence."

"Students in our schools score higher than other students on national tests even as we struggle to keep schools open and keep tuition low enough," he said. Catholic schools also "provide faith formation even in a school where the overwhelming majority are not Catholic."

He said an "identity and communion" with the Catholic Church "provide a level of self confidence and therefore hope." He said Catholic schools must be "an oasis of hope - especially in the center city."

He recalled that on a visit to a Catholic elementary school, he asked the students why they attended the school. One student, he said, raised his hand and said, "I come to this school so I can get an education, so I can get a life."

Catholic schools, also provide a sense of belonging, Archbishop Wuerl said, where a student can "mature within the spiritual embrace of our spiritual family. As a community we are called to a love of God and a love of each other."

Archbishop Wuerl also stressed that schools "must be Catholic through and through" and called the convocation "an opportunity to begin sharing... to bring eventually a plan of cooperation to make sure Catholic schools continue and flourish."

"What we bring to our students, to our schools and to our communities is nothing less than Jesus Christ," he said.

Msgr. Bill Parent, pastor St. Peter's Church in Waldorf, said convening such a gathering "was a tremendous example of the importance of Catholic schools."

Beth Blaufuss, vice principal of Archbishop Carroll High School in Northeast Washington, said the convocation was "a chance for the archdiocesan leadership to get feedback from schools, parishes and lay leadership of the vision of where Catholic schools are headed."

In addition to his convocation address, Archbishop Wuerl offered a Mass to conclude the gathering. Concelebrants included Auxiliary Bishops Martin Holley and Francisco Gonzlez.

"It seems very appropriate that we would end a day on Catholic education by coming to the Eucharist," he said. "We are celebrating one aspect of the faith, how it is passed on from generation to generation. The seed is God's Word, and we are all the sowers. Our task it to see that our vision is shared and passed on."

Last year, the 108 Catholic schools in the archdiocese educated nearly 32,000 students in the District of Columbia and five Maryland counties: Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George's and St. Mary's.