Friday, February 04, 2011

For Schools Week, a Polar Plunge

Of course, in the States (and even some points beyond), today sees the close of Catholic Schools Week -- a moment for the wider church and world to focus on the work done day in and out by the teachers and institutions that, in the US, educate some 2.1 million students all told and, over on the Blessed Sod of Patrick, own and run over 90 percent of (state-subsidized) primary education, and well more beyond.

On these shores, this year's Schools Week comes amid a unique mix of developments. While nearly 20 percent of the nation's Catholic elementary and secondary buildings have shut their doors just over the last decade amid a mix of spiraling costs and declining enrollments, in the largest one-off planning move anyone can recall, the country's second-largest local church -- New York -- will close 28 schools (one sixth of its system) in June in an effort to fill the existing quota of seats and stem years of heavy subsidies which've put a strain on many a diocesan budget. Out in the 5 million-member LA church, meanwhile, a plan to lengthen the elementary school year by four weeks to counter a cut in days by the local public school system was first announced with great fanfare, then reversed amid protests from parents -- it'll now be optional and made on a school-by-school basis. And down in the South, like everything else there these days, they just can't build 'em big or fast enough.

Above all, though, the last element of the American Catholic apparatus that's essentially gone untouched since the eruption of the sex-abuse scandals in 2002 is finally coming in for its closeup.

After a commission of the Stateside bishops spent a year exploring options for the consolidation of the nation's seminaries with the encouragement of the Holy See, during the executive session of the bench's November meeting, the question was entrusted to the USCCB's 15 regions, each of which has been tasked with drawing up recommendations for the future of its respective houses by the next Fall Plenary, but with no formal targets set.

With Rome having deemed in its 2008 closing report for the 2005-6 Apostolic Visitation of the nation's houses of formation that the question of "whether there are too many seminaries in the US" was one "worth asking," according to 2010 stats from Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Catholic Apostolate (CARA), 61 percent of the country's 46 standing major seminaries reported fewer than 75 students; since the mid-1970s, the number of theologians in formation has leveled out to roughly half their modern peak of 4,800 recorded in the years following the Council. Along the way, the houses have reported a 75 percent retention rate of theologians for ordination.

As the current seminary infrastructure accordingly reflects an era of significantly larger student populations, the concerns leading up to the consolidation push have largely been focused on an increasingly tenuous balance in the stewardship of their resources. Not only are most of the seminaries' buildings continuing to age (and, ergo, needing increased amounts of maintenance) with far fewer men around, but the ever more pressing shortage of priests has either seen the numbers of full-time clergy assigned to formation staffs either fall to alarming levels or created a redundancy of more formators doing the same work within close geographic range than the current dire needs of providing personnel for parish life can allow.

(In much of the Western church, though the shortage has already taken a sizable bite out of no lack of presbyterates, its worst brunt is likely to come over the next decade as the last large classes of priests, predominantly ordained in the years surrounding Vatican II, edge ever closer to retirement age.)

On another front, the status quo has seen several of the houses receiving generous annual subsidies from their dioceses to keep afloat. Here, with annual costs-per-student surpassing the $100,000 mark at several theologates -- even, at a few, landing closer to the $200,000 point -- like many things in this economy, the long-struck balance has proved itself in need of revamping.

With the decision already made to close the oldest American seminary abroad -- the American College Louvain -- at the end of this academic year, it's worth noting that the largest of the nation's houses is no longer on these shores: after years of consistent enrollment booms, the Pontifical North American College in Rome now has over 200 students, a handful more than Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall. And while several campuses toward points South -- Mount St Mary's in Emmitsburg, Theological College at Washington's Catholic U, Dallas' Holy Trinity in Irving and San Antonio's Assumption Seminary among them -- are likewise posting larger enrollments than they've seen in decades, the domestic standout story of recent years remains Denver's St John Vianney Seminary, which, all of 14 years since its reconstitution, stands midway in the pack of the nation's ten largest theologates with well over 100 students.

Beyond the regional planning efforts, the future of the seminaries figures to be a key element of the US bishops' long-awaited ad limina visit to Rome, which begins in early November and will extend through the first half of next year, their first Quinquennial Reports expected in Rome on or around May 1st.

* * *
On a brighter note, invariably scheduled to take place in tandem with the feast of the great patron of Catholic education, St Thomas Aquinas, while Schools Week's Irish observance was duly observed with an editorial in the Irish Times from the bishop-chair of the local bench's education arm, a tack echoed in these shores' Premier See by its archbishop, leave it to the Stateside church's most prominent face of Catholic schooling to approach his first of these as a bishop by making a far bigger splash.


Best known as the president who remade the Catholic University of America over a 12-year tenure capped with no less than the B16 seal of approval, it was never any secret that Bishop David O'Connell of Trenton was a beach bum.

On leaving the DC post, the River City-born Vincentian planned to take a six-month sabbatical at the Jersey Shore... only to be given its northern two-thirds to shepherd year-round before said respite could even begin. And lest anyone needed further proof of the Holy Spirit's presence at the "Thursday table" of the Congregation for Bishops, it hasn't take long for the head of the 850,000-member Central Jersey church to make his mark in the "Great Diocese" -- home to, among other things, the nation's second-largest contingent of (nearly 450) permanent deacons -- where O'Connell's transition from the legendary Bishop Mort Smith took place in December.

Along those lines, while he's pledged to close no schools in his first year and announced Catholic education as the centerpiece of the annual diocesan appeal, taking to sub-freezing surf to raise money for its survival has been uncharted territory....

That is, until now.

Joined by his secretary and some 400 others, that's exactly what O'Connell did on last month's feast of the Baptism of the Lord -- high temp: 29F (-2C) -- with a Polar Bear Plunge that netted over $100,000 for the diocesan schools.

Indeed, there's video:

(Tip to NCR.)

As the bishop told a friend afterward, "It was cold going in. But really cold coming out." And just in case any questions remained over why the former CU chief was named among these pages' Four to Watch some months back, suffice it to say, you've got your answer.

Especially these days, it's one thing to write about the need for Catholic schools, another to do whatever it takes to keep them a reality... and even when that happens, in times like these -- when difficult calls are necessary, and often frequent -- what matters most is that the world can always see how everything humanly possible has been done to stave off the worst, even (especially) when the most valiant of efforts doesn't end up being enough.

In other words, Dolan, get out your bathing-suit.