I began my Catholic education in a parochial school in 1954, and I can recall with perfect clarity that for the entire eight years I spent in St. Mary Magdalene School in Buffalo, we brought a snack for midmorning on Monday, and then we were released for the day at 12:30 PM. The reason for this was a program called "released time." Evidently Catholic children in Buffalo's public schools were released from their classes early so that they could come over to St. Mary Magdalene. Our parish’s Sisters of St. Joseph and the Christian Brother conducted Monday afternoon catechism classes for these children. We were advised before dismissal on Mondays to make sure all of our goods were secured or taken home, because they might be stolen by the public school Catholic children. Obviously, not an optimum state of affairs. Recall, though, that the Plenary Council of Baltimore's teachings that every parish should have a school was still in effect, and parents who did not send their children to Catholic schools carried something of a taint.
National attendant in Catholic schools peaked in the 1960s for many reasons, some financial and some philosophical. It is true that large numbers of religious sisters turned to ministries of social justice in the atmosphere of Vatican II. In 1972 the American bishops issued the famous “To Teach as Jesus Did”, a pastoral directive on the future state of religious education. Reading it again last year, I noted that the bishops somewhat neatly sidestepped the question of obligatory Catholic school attendance; at the same time, their vision including a massive development of new models and structures for religious education for entire parishes, including the youth, to receive a highly competent formation in the Faith. If memory serves me correctly, the bishops even talked about parish buildings, libraries and academies for catechetics and religious formation. It occurred to me then that the bishops were in essence saying that if there would be fewer religious and fewer Catholic schools, that all young people would still receive the same professional measure of religious education.
The state of religious education since 1972 is worthy of careful study, and I am still looking for historians and other competent academics to examine the unfolding of the catechetical state of affairs over the past 40 years. I think we could learn a lot from that. However, the critical intentions of the bishops in 1972 are worthy of great merit: that the catechist enjoy the same academic/professional preparation and standing in the diocesan and parish structures as the former generation of Catholic school teachers who did the same thing.
You may be wondering to yourselves, is this possible? I would say that it is not only possible, it is imperative. One of the best but most depressing religious books of 2014 is a captivating study entitled Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church. Its authors/researchers, in evaluating their statistical and interview results, observe that whether a child attended Catholic school or religious formation programs, their faith identity is so weak that the vast majority simply mesh into the predominant American culture. The commentators note, too, that this current 18-23 population is the offspring of parents who also have lost a sense of Catholic identity as they entered adulthood in the 1990’s.
The disconnect between the last several generations and the full life of the Church is a massive problem in our country, and it must be addressed, in Luther’s famous phrase, in capite et membris, at the top and among all the members. The religious educator will be a major player in bringing the vision of Pope Francis and the splendid academic excellence of our past into future renewal. Will you be prepared to lead the effort?