Speaker: Catholic schools must cultivate identity to keep students in the faith

| Susan Klemond | January 24, 2017 | 2 Comments

In this file photo, Catholic grade school students participate in the Children’s Rosary Pilgrimage at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

The vision for Catholic education outlined in many Church documents hasn’t changed, but some Catholic schools need to regain this vision and develop a traditional Catholic identity in order to raise future Church and societal leaders in the faith, said Jamie Arthur, director of the Cardinal Newman Society’s Catholic Education Honor Roll who spoke at an event for parents Jan. 19 at St. John the Baptist in New Brighton.

“I think we’re in a critical time, and if we’re not forming the next generation of Catholics, I don’t know who will be sitting in the pews or leading the Church,” said Arthur, who outlined the nonprofit’s principles for Catholic identity based on Church teaching on education. The Virginia-based organization uses the principles to determine which Catholic high schools are recognized on its honor roll for strong Catholic identity and academic excellence. Three high schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have received this distinction: Providence Academy in Plymouth, Chesterton Academy in Edina and St. Agnes School in St. Paul.

About 150 people, including parents and priests, attended the event titled, “Choosing a Catholic High School Education: Preserving Your Child’s Faith in a Secular Society,” which was sponsored by the Cardinal Newman Society and the Catholic Defense League, a nonprofit organization based in St. Paul.

Following Arthur’s talk, she and the headmasters of the three local Catholic high schools on the honor roll — David Beskar of Chesterton Academy, Todd Flanders of Providence and Kevin Ferdinandt of St. Agnes — answered audience members’ questions.

Father Bill Baer, pastor of Transfiguration in Oakdale, emceed the event.

“This meeting tonight came about as a number of us in communication with Bishop [Andrew] Cozzens and Archbishop [Bernard] Hebda saw the value of bringing the Cardinal Newman Society and their wonderful focus to the archdiocese and to the Twin Cities. Their work extends throughout the United States with many, many schools,” he said.

In his remarks before Arthur’s talk, Bishop Cozzens, the archdiocese’s vicar of education, said Catholic schools need to be a bulwark of people and structures to strengthen young people for a culture hostile to values and beliefs about human life and the gift of faith. Then, the Church can withstand an approaching “spiritual tsunami” seeking to destroy the country’s culture. The Cardinal Newman Society strengthens Catholic schools to be that bulwark, he said.

Church documents assert that the mission of Catholic high schools is not only to prepare students for college and future success, but also their eternal salvation. The principles the Cardinal Newman Society developed point to that end — including being true to the purpose of Catholic education, engaging with parents and providing opportunities for encounters with Christ, Arthur said.

The Society, which seeks to promote and defend faithful Catholic education, lists 71 Catholic high schools on its 2014 honor roll, with another nine receiving honorable mention. Parents and others can view the honor roll online. It will release a new honor roll in the next several months and plans to introduce an honor roll for elementary schools in the next year. It also offers schools resources such as Catholic curriculum standards and a recommended colleges guide.

Providence has been included in the honor roll since the list was first created in 2004. Chesterton and St. Agnes were recognized in 2012 and 2014, the two most recent years the honor roll was issued. Schools must apply for honor roll consideration.

Arthur emphasized that both learning and formation kindle a love for truth, and that Catholic intellectual tradition should be integrated in the curriculum to give students tools to fight individualism and relativism. Also, teachers should model the faith for students, she said.

Jill Fink, 45, wasn’t looking for a high school for her three children but wanted to learn about what makes a high school Catholic. Fink, who attends Immaculate Conception in Columbia Heights, said she was impressed by Cardinal Newman Society’s research in creating a tool to evaluate schools.

“I think the principles are very solid,” said Fink, who serves as director of faith formation at Epiphany in Coon Rapids.

Greg and Laura Peichel of Epiphany attended to learn about options for their five children, especially their oldest, a sixth-grader.

“We are very committed to Catholic education for our kids, and we just want to know what the best option is and [how] we can make that happen,” said Laura, 41.

Greg, 42, said he was struck by the importance of faith-filled school leadership and teachers’ dedication to the faith and to a school’s Catholic identity. “Not only do they practice faith privately, but they [also] practice it as a model for the students,” he said.

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