In the 1950s, when I started school in my local parish, our U.S. Catholic schools were packed. Waiting lists of hopeful parents seeking a Catholic school education for their children abounded. Those schools exemplified the expression “If you build it, they will come” long before that expression became popular. What a difference 60 years make!
Sixty years ago, there were no education councils, no advisory groups, no development committees, no marketing plans. The sisters were the experts. The development committee was an occasional fund-raiser. The marketing plans were the schools that spoke for themselves. No one knew of or needed a long-range plan. Catholic parents, and others, wanted a Catholic school. The parish considered the school an essential element to bring the faith to families.
As a young priest, I remember my first pastor sharing an insight with me. I was complaining to him about how difficult and embarrassing it was for me to preach at daily Mass to the sisters at the local motherhouse. After all, they were the ones who had educated me. What could I possibly tell them? He wisely told me, “Father, remember whatever you tell them will be told to the children who will tell their parents.” Is that not fides ex auditu?”
Sixty years later, parishes — both pastors and parishioners — speak of the schools as financial drains; schools often present themselves as independent, with the parishes as funding sources.
Extreme Situations, Extreme Measures
Sixty years have brought many changes to respond to changing situations. In extremis, extrema tentanda sunt. In extreme situations, extreme measures must be taken. We now have education councils, boards of education, advisory committees, athletic associations, development committees, marketing committees.
What are the extreme conditions driving these changes? Lack of enrollment in Catholic schools tops the list. Fewer families with fewer children have changed the enrollments in all schools. A few years ago, in this publication, I suggested that the decrease in enrollment could be attributed in great part to a decrease in living, vibrant faith in the lives of parents. Fewer children and dwindling practice of the faith continue to threaten the existence of Catholic schools.
So the guardians of the Catholic schools, because they believe in their mission, have resorted to modern techniques to promote their “product,” the Catholic school. However, can secular techniques be effectively used to promote a spiritual process, a faith-based mission, a Catholic mission? The short answer is yes. However, the techniques themselves will not work unless they, too, are immersed with the same spirit as the schools they promote. The techniques in themselves are not enough; they must be spirit-filled just as the schools they promote must be spirit-filled.
Some of the newer promotional methods for Catholic schools present the Catholic school as a better competitor for the market than the public school or than other private schools. Those programs can often miss the unique nature of the Catholic school, the character that makes it incomparable. Only the Catholic school can promote the fullness of the Christian message.
Some may argue that marketing plans and development programs should focus on how much better the Catholic schools are. True, but better than what? To miss affirming the essential element, the Gospel values taught and lived on a daily basis, neglects the core, founding value of the school, and presents a dwarfed image of what the school offers.
Again, others may argue that potential “customers” of the Catholic schools are looking for better grades for their children, more discipline, organized activities, higher SAT scores, and better college placement. All these elements have their importance and necessity. However, they do not constitute the core of the Catholic school, nor does a school have to be Catholic to achieve them.
If our parents are seeking the “better,” rather than the “essential,” of our Catholic schools, perhaps the marketing and development should waken in the audience a desire for the Catholic nature of the Catholic school as well as all the other perceived values. In other words, could our promotion programs also awaken the faith life of our families? Presenting the Catholic message while promoting our schools can be subtle, strong or anywhere in between.
Images can convey more than words. For example, I remember looking at a Catholic school yearbook. If the word “saint” did not appear in the name of the school, I would have had no way of guessing that it was a Catholic school! Words are also necessary. How many websites neglect to affirm the school’s Catholic nature? In how many mission statements is the Catholic essence of the school so subtle that God would not even recognize it?
Yes, 60 years have made a difference. We continue to re-think the Catholic heart of our schools. The modern means of communicating and spreading that message are important and essential. The heart of our schools has not changed. Let’s make sure that our message conveys accurately what we believe.
MSGR. AUCOIN is pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Colton, N.Y.