As schools close, opportunity knocks

"Final Bells for 49" read the inch-high headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer over a front-page story announcing school closings in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. "Grief and Anger" was the next-day headline on the front page over the follow-up story.

Four Catholic high schools will be closed; 45 parish elementary schools will shutter or merge. Drops in enrollment and rising cost-per-pupil figures convinced a 16-member "blue ribbon" commission, after one year's study, that the present system is unsustainable.

No one is happy. Few, however, are arguing that the present scale of operation can or should be maintained.

Some question the absence of consultation or visitation to the affected schools. All are concerned about the future of teachers who will have no place in the streamlined system. And it is anyone's guess as to the magnitude of the shift of children from Catholic to public schooling in the five-county archdiocese.

Little attention is being paid to an accompanying announcement that every parish in the archdiocese must now hire a full-time director of religious education and that the age for reception of the sacrament of confirmation is being pushed up from 6th to 8th grade.

Catholics in public schools who participate in parish-sponsored religious education programs typically bail out of religious education as soon as they are confirmed.

This change means that the religious education program is now likely to remain robust through 8th grade, although viability through the high school years is unlikely.

That could change. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia now has an opportunity to re-create parish-based religious education for children not enrolled in Catholic schools. There are going to be a lot more of them in the future.

A parish that cannot afford a full-time religious education professional can team up with another and split the cost, but every parish will have to have a professional directing its religious education activity.

There is abundant talent on the theology, religious studies and education faculties of the Catholic institutions of higher education in the Philadelphia area. The archdiocesan seminary has a program of Catholic studies within its graduate school of theology.

These institutions can offer master's level certification for those attracted to this expanded religious education ministry, not just traditional students but also second-career adults and displaced teachers from the present archdiocesan school system.

It would be a nice severance benefit for displaced teachers if the Archdiocese picked up the tab for this certification. The Catholic colleges and universities might be creative not only in designing a forward-march curriculum for religious education professionals but also in packaging scholarship aid.

The real challenge will be in designing the certification curriculum and training teachers who can motivate and communicate effectively. The new media must be employed and new thinking has to shape the content.

This is not to say that only the young need apply for the design-and-build portion of this project. Veterans such as the much-published veteran of high school classroom combat in teaching religion, Jesuit Father Bill O'Malley, are needed now to show the way.

Conservative Catholic Philadelphia now has an opportunity, not just a problem. Enlightened conservatism means moving forward in a great tradition.

Conservative Catholic Philadelphia can be a beacon of hope to Catholic parents and educators nationwide, who, like Catholic leadership in Philadelphia, are looking reality in the eye and searching for ways to re-energize religious education for Catholic youngsters in public schools.

Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.

Fr. Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph's University, Philadelphia. Email: wbyron@sju.edu.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970