Were it not for the Catholic schools I attended in my formative years, in all likelihood I would not be writing this column. It was there that all the essential relationships that took root as seeds in baptism -- God, family, Church and community -- came together to make me the person I would become.
The growth and integration of those seeds of human life would gradually inform me that Catholic education means more than developing a sound mind in a sound body, the classical (Roman) ideal. It's about a future leading beyond a solid bank of knowledge, good friends and family, or even a successful career.
Far more, my Catholic school experience provided food for my spirit: a prayer and sacramental life to nourish virtues without which eternal life, our true destiny, could not be enjoyed. Without Jesus Christ at the center of my life, none of the above would fit together, because I would have no center beyond myself or some other idol.
Today, so many seem torn by feelings and passions of the moment. Despite the countless blessings of health, information, technology, social services and entertainment (available to so many now more than any other time in history), the "success" or "failure" of one human association, the coming or passing of one revered relative or celebrity, or the rotation of one political cycle can create swings of panic or euphoria -- an almost bipolar national psychosis.
Happiness and security, life itself, seem to hinge on the extent to which that one person or even an ideology is given the status of a deity in whom all the hope and meaning of one's life is invested.
In contrast, my Catholic education -- and for this I am profoundly grateful -- provided me with a foundation that is an ongoing insurance against a desperate view of life in any given moment. It planted roots in the core of my personal identity that are much deeper than the inevitable changes of emotional, economic, political and environmental fortune to which human life is subject on Earth.
It also taught me there is a heaven, and that everything I do on Earth matters, if that be my destiny.
Not all to which I refer came easily or at once -- for me or for any of us. It did not begin to dawn on me until many decades later how grateful I am for my Catholic school education.
I do not mean to imply that those who have received their faith and academic formation in other contexts have not also, by the grace of God, grown through such important relationships. I do know, however, that although the "God-seed" may be planted at baptism, it cannot grow unless it is watered and well nurtured.
This is what my Catholic school education did for me. It is what I want for every single child, every young adult in my pastoral care in the great Diocese of Albany.
As we approach the Jan. 29-Feb. 4 celebration of Catholic Schools Week, these thoughts and reflections come to my mind. The gift of Catholic schools, however, is not something personal only to me and those whose experience might be like mine. It extends to all of society.
In practical, economic terms, thanks to our tuition-paying parents, Catholic and other non-public schools save the state an estimated $10.7 billion every year! This would be enough to blow a hole in any state budget, even in the best of times.
The duty of our state and others to provide tuition assistance to these families through tax credits and scholarship programs goes beyond justice or parental rights. It is, increasingly, an economic necessity for our state.
If these schools were not here and thriving, not only would children who would otherwise be trapped in failing schools lose their futures, and not only would public schools be overcrowded to the point of bursting, but every single taxpayer would be burdened beyond what we can imagine.
Academically and socially, our schools' success in graduating nearly 100 percent of our children on time and sending the overwhelming majority on to college creates good and productive citizens for the state. Strong Catholic schools are an investment in our state's future, leading to stronger families, safer communities and a more prosperous society.
In terms of human development, our mission is the formation of the whole child - body, mind and soul -- in the context of family, Church and community. Our Catholic schools do this, while providing strong academic programs that produce well-rounded citizens who will become the leaders of tomorrow -- not to mention people who will live holy lives in their God-given vocation, be it to married or dedicated single life, or to religious or priestly service.
On a philosophical note, we were focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) long before it had that catchy acronym, but we never stopped there. Religion and the arts, the riches of a classical education and all that is important to critical thinking, have long been part of the Catholic school tradition and always will be.
We educate the whole child in an environment of love, respect, and caring! Whenever I visit one of our schools, I am always heartened by the strong sense of community that reverberates throughout the building. That's because it's much more than a building; it is a family of faith.
Faith in Jesus Christ is, of course, the foundation of the Church and, therefore, of all Catholic education, providing not only the ground for our students' future success, but also a moral compass for them, their families and all of society. A well-formed conscience will guide their decisions for the rest of their lives, for their own good and the good of all in a society in which they, as mature citizens, will one day take their place.
For anyone seeking something now to hope in and believe in for the future of our children, our families, our faith and even our civilization, investing in our Catholic schools is a great place to start.
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(January 19, 2017)