In a new pastoral letter issued this week, Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl says strengthening and supporting Catholic education at parishes and schools is the responsibility of all Catholics, who as disciples of Jesus in today's world are called to pass on the faith to others. The pastoral letter, "Catholic Education: Looking to the Future with Confidence," was dated Sept. 14 and issued to the clergy, religious and laity of the Archdiocese of Washington.

"It is by celebrating our strengths, identifying areas for improvement and working together that Catholic education will flourish for generations to come, bringing them Christ's Gospel and helping them grow in their encounter with the living Lord," the archbishop said in the introduction to the letter.

The letter details how the archdiocese is undergoing a comprehensive assessment of its parish religious education programs, and task forces are looking at ways to strengthen the Catholic identity, academic excellence, accessibility and affordability of Catholic schools, to sustain them for the future. The planning will "include consultation with a wide range of people," the letter notes.

In an interview last week, Archbishop Wuerl noted the letter follows a 2006 archdiocesan Catechetical Convocation and a 2007 Convocation on Catholic Education, where participants agreed on the need to work together to devise "a vision (for teaching the faith), a strategy to carry it out and a policy to implement it."

"I'm using the pastoral letter," he said, "to call all of us to envision why we are involved in Catholic education, what we can do to enrich parish religious education, and what we can do to ensure our Catholic schools for the future."

In the interview, he said that Catholic education "is the heart of who we are."

The pastoral letter spells out the many different forms of Catholic education, noting that they have the primary task of communicating "the person and message of Christ to adults, youth and children... In our Catholic elementary and secondary schools, parish religious education programs, adult faith formation, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, sacramental formation programs, and the many forms of youth ministry, campus ministry and evangelizing outreach, the threads of the encounter with Christ and his life-giving message are woven into the fabric of our human experience."

And all Catholics are called to support that work, the pastoral letter says, adding, "Catholic education is the responsibility of the whole Church." The Catholic faith is a gift that today's followers of Jesus should share with others, the letter notes, saying, "Each of us is asked to stand in the midst of our family, our parish and our community, aware of our faith, proud of it and part of the effort to share this wonderful gift."

During the interview, the archbishop added, "The task of telling the story of Jesus belongs to everybody. Everybody shares in that privilege of discipleship."

In the pastoral letter, Archbishop Wuerl noted Pope Benedict XVI's strong words of support for Catholic education during his April visit to Washington. The pontiff told educational leaders gathered at the Catholic University of America that "Education is integral to the mission of the church to proclaim the Good News. First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God, who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth."

Archbishop Wuerl noted how the need for Catholic education is especially important in an increasingly secular and materialistic world. "Our children today, as they grow up in an ever more complex world, need to be firmly grounded in knowledge of the authentic faith the Church professes so they can be prepared to live a full, happy and holy life in communion with Christ," he wrote in the pastoral.

Families also face financial challenges. The pastoral noted that reality presents key questions for the Church to examine, including, "How do we ensure we are offering academically excellent and affordable schools to as many children as possible? How can we better assist families who are making sacrifices for their children's education?"

The archbishop said two central initiatives are underway to help the archdiocese accomplish its goals for Catholic education, growing out of the archdiocesan convocations the past two years: "a parish catechetical visitation assessment process, and the development of archdiocesan-wide policy and strategy for our archdiocesan Catholic schools."

In a section on parish religious education, the pastoral letter thanked catechists for their work, noting that last year more than 2,400 parish catechists taught the faith to 24,200 youth. The letter noted the important role of parents, the first teachers of the faith for their children. "Education in the faith begins in the family," the letter says.

The letter also acknowledges the work done by Catholic parents who are homeschooling their children, and encourages parishes and archdiocesan offices to dialogue with and support "them and their children in their faith journey."

The pastoral notes that key new resources are available for catechists, including "The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults," and also newly approved catechetical materials for high school aged youth, and a new document encouraging chastity.

The Office of Religious Education has begun to visit parishes and schools, in a new visitation and assessment program aimed at promoting religious education planning and strengthening the religious education classes offered at the grassroots level. The pastoral noted that pilot visits have uncovered a need to begin a review of religious education guidelines and curricula, and have recommended that "it is time to improve the curriculum through the addition of religious education standards that indicate what a student should know after a course of instruction." The visits have also identified a need for "improved formation and preparation for parish catechists and also the development of some basic new materials that assist the catechists in their task."

In a section on Catholic schools, the pastoral letter notes that the 98 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington served about 30,000 students in schools located along city streets, suburban neighborhoods and the rural countryside, representing families from many different backgrounds.

The pastoral noted the challenges being faced by Catholic schools at a time when 1,200 faith-based schools closed between 2000 to 2006, due to factors like declining populations and rising costs. Those same factors led the Archdiocese of Washington this past year, after extensive consultation, to devise a new framework for education in the District of Columbia, in an effort to keep schools open in inner city neighborhoods. Seven former center city Catholic schools opened as values-based charter schools this fall, and four center city Catholic schools became part of a reconfigured Consortium of Catholic Academies, which will receive $3 million in funding this fall.

Also, the pastoral noted the success of regional Catholic schools, innovative partnerships like Holy Redeemer School in Washington being a Magnificat School with help from the University of Notre Dame, and the new Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, where low-income students receive a college preparatory education and help fund their education through a work-study program at area businesses and agencies.

The pastoral noted how, following the 2007 Convocation on Catholic Education, task forces have been formed to strengthen four key areas or pillars of local Catholic schools: Catholic identity, academic excellence, accessibility and affordability. After extensive consultation, the task forces will formulate suggested policies to strengthen Catholic schools in those areas.

Regarding Catholic identity, the pastoral noted, "Catholic identity is intrinsic to our educational effort and is the reason for its success." Catholic schools teach the values of the faith to Catholic and non-Catholic students alike and help transform their lives. "Catholic schools become a gift to the whole community," the pastoral says.

The pastoral letter notes that Catholic schools are known for the academic achievement of their students, and "academic excellence must remain a hallmark of Catholic education."

"With this vision of academic excellence integrated into a deeply ingrained Catholic identity, we are able to provide students with the experience of hope - hope in Christ and hope in the future.

In an interview about the pastoral letter, Archbishop Wuerl discussed the issues of accessibility and affordability of Catholics schools. (See related sidebar story on this page.)

The archbishop in his pastoral said the goal for the task forces examining those four key issues for Catholic education is to develop suggested policies and strategies, then those recommendations will be submitted for consultation with archdiocesan bodies like the Priest Council, Pastoral Council and Board of Education. The goal is for policies to be ready to be implemented by the 2009-2010 academic year.

In concluding the pastoral letter, the archbishop said that the effort to strengthen and sustain Catholic education is a work of faith.

"Looking to the future of Catholic education, we should do so with hope, confidence and enthusiasm knowing that we bring something to those we teach that no one else can. We share the story of Jesus," he said in the pastoral letter. "As we start down this road, we do so with faith, with appreciation of who we are as God's family and our need for mutual support and collaboration. We turn also in prayer, asking God's gift of the Spirit to enlighten and sustain us..."

Archbishop Wuerl is a national leader in Catholic education, serving as chairman of the board for the National Catholic Educational Association and as chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis. He served as chairman of the editorial oversight board that developed the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. Next month, he will be a delegate to the world Synod of Bishops on the Bible, meeting in Rome.

This is Archbishop Wuerl's third pastoral letter since he was installed as the archbishop of Washington in June 2006. Before Lent began in 2007 and again in 2008, he wrote pastoral letters encouraging local Catholics to receive God's mercy through the Sacrament of Penance.