As a coincidence, on my 39th anniversary as a priest I was asked to preach about Catholic schools in a local parish. As a Catholic high school principal, I often fill in at parishes on weekends, somewhat like a ''rent-a-priest,'' but was happy that I could go to a parish and speak about something close to my heart -- Catholic schools and Catholic education.

During almost all of those 39 years, I have been involved with Catholic education and Catholic schools: teacher for seven years, principal for eight, Catholic college president for nine, pastor of parishes with a Catholic school for six, Vicar of Education for seven years and now, once again, a principal of a Catholic high school.

For the past 39 years, I have also seen the face of Catholic schools change. Many will remember the Catholic school education that they or their children experienced and may think that it is different. However, the essential nature of Catholic schools, their reason for existence, has not changed in my lifetime, nor in the lifetime since their creation.

One of Jesus' final statements to his Church was: ''Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you'' (Mt 28:20). What an awesome commandment: ''Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.'' Here, we really have two commandments: Teach what I have commanded and teach to observe what I have commanded. In other words, as a Church we have a responsibility not only to teach the word of God, but also teach how to live that word of God. I propose that, outside of the family, Catholic schools are the best means at our disposal to teach the word of God and to teach how to observe the Word.

In the early years of our country, especially at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, our Catholic predecessors realized that, even though they were living their Catholic heritage at home, there was a need for their children to receive a more intense exposure to their faith and their Catholic heritage where they spent a good part of the day -- their school.

Catholic Schools' Beginnings

Even in those days, there were prevailing elements contrary to the Catholic faith that parents felt would be injurious to their children. So, they began with great sacrifice what has become the Catholic schools in the United States. These schools were established, not to compete with other schools, but to offer what other schools could not or would not offer. Their task was and still is to offer the best of human education along with the best of Catholic formative education.

Parishes found dedicated religious to teach in these schools. These gifted individuals took the best of human knowledge in English, math, science, foreign language, social studies, business and a myriad of other subjects and wove into the normal lessons of the classroom the content of our faith as well as the underlying values of our Catholic heritage -- all of this in addition to teaching formal religion classes.

This same methodology has continued over the years despite the changes in the external appearances of Catholic schools. For the most part, religious have been replaced with lay teachers. These teachers share in that same spirit of dedication. There may be fewer schools and fewer students in those schools, but the same mission has been in the forefront.

The Best Formation

Catholic schools began because parents and Church leaders wanted to make sure that their children received the best in human and religious formation. The environment in which they lived then, while not hostile, was not always conducive to what they wanted to achieve. Now, when we move the clock ahead to 2009, we can only say that if there was a need to reinforce Catholic values then, the need is much greater today.

Look at where we are today. We live in an increasingly secular and materialistic society. Our society's values are often at odds with our Catholic beliefs. The secular media are hostile to our Catholic Church. Our values are constantly being threatened in popular culture, the media, and even in the legislatures of our local, state and country governments.

We live in a society that rejects revealed religion such as ours as found in Sacred Scripture and prefers building a religion based on popular vote rather than on what God has revealed about himself. Oprah Winfry dictates morality and spirituality rather than the Word of God as believed and preached by the Church for the past 2,000 years.

A few weeks ago I was on a college campus, a non-Catholic campus, that has a so-called campus ministry program sponsored by the university, not by any Church. One of the campus ministry projects was ''BYOB'' (''Bring your own bottle'' may come to mind). Wrong! It meant something even worse. It meant Build Your Own Belief. It is incomprehensible that even Catholic parents are willing to spend $50,000 per year to send a child to a university that has adopted secular values and has made them into a new religion.

Our social structures used to reinforce basic Christian values that encouraged family life. Those support structures have been replaced by very secular structures that make even the basics very difficult. Pastors can willingly attest that religious instruction and sacramental preparation must now compete against entertainment and sports that have taken on a priority greater than eternal life.

So, today our children need even more than in the past the program that only a Catholic school can offer. We believe that the answer to the question ''Why did God make you?'' is ''God made me to be happy with him forever in heaven.'' We live in a world where science wishes to control reproduction with no room for God; where happiness is a commodity to be purchased, and where forever has the life expectancy of a few months or a few years. Our children need a Catholic school where the simplistic answers of the current culture can be replaced with the eternal truths and answers found only in God and in our treasured Catholic heritage.

Our Catholic schools try to unite faith, culture and life. What a unique opportunity the Catholic school provides! We have the opportunity and freedom to take the best of human wisdom, analyze and incorporate that wisdom into a life of faith, thereby giving us a life filled with meaning, a meaning greater than human wisdom all by itself. In some schools, the expression ''do the math'' may mean get a correct answer. In Catholic schools, ''do the math'' means count your blessings.

Catholic Schools a Blessing

Our Catholic schools are a blessing, a blessing for the families and children who are there, but also a blessing for the entire Church community that benefits and will benefit from the lives of those children.

Our Catholic schools take their inspiration from Jesus himself. They present a vision of life inspired by Jesus, not the vision as is sometimes portrayed in music or films of today.

Our Catholic schools are a reminder that education can and does work by helping our students bring out the very best that they can offer.

Our Catholic schools believe that they should transform the minds and hearts of the students. The Catholic schools do not only educate the person, but they likewise wish to feed the spirit of the student. We want to nourish the whole person and make the child realize that the best is yet to come. Our life here is just a preparation.

Pastors may question the value of Catholic schools especially when families are lackluster about the practice of the faith. The message of Jesus Christ offers life. Our Catholic schools live and teach that message. Catholic schools are a vital portion of the Church's mission to ''teach all that I have commanded you.''

MSGR. AUCOIN, a priest of the Diocese of Ogdensburg, is principal of Seton Catholic Central School in Plattsburgh, N.Y.