We have many special celebrations in this month of January, all of which deserve our attention. I could write today about the sanctity of life and the March for Life. I could reflect upon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the need to work for racial equality. I could write about the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as we celebrate that effort to be more ecumenical.

I want to write today about another important topic: Catholic education. January ends with Catholic Schools Week, and the desire to make a Catholic education available really hit home for me personally this year. 

I have many incredible blessings in life, and I consider my own Catholic education very near the top, right after my parents, my priesthood and my family. I had 17 years in Catholic schools, from Our Lady of Lourdes to St. John’s High School to Loras College to Mount Saint Mary’s. All helped form me for my particular vocation and ministry to those most in need.

This blessing of a Catholic education has been particularly poignant for me recently as we at St. Bartholomew’s Parish in Bethesda, where I live, have struggled with whether our school could stay open amid decreasing enrollment. It breaks my heart that this difficult question has hung over our parish and our pastor, Father Mark Knestout, since we had an open forum in October to discuss whether we had the population and resources necessary to keep our school alive.

The archdiocese rightfully has set guidelines to help determine when a school might become more of a drain than an asset to a parish. If you need to spend large amounts of money to keep a school open, it can take resources away from other important aspects of parish life, including liturgy, social justice, religious education, and more. We all need to look carefully at how we use the blessings that God has given to us, and operating parish schools is no different.

St. Bart’s was asked to carefully consider several primary questions. Could we increase our enrollment by 40 students next September? And could we raise enough money through donations to keep the school afloat without draining resources to be used for other important parish functions? 

It has been difficult. School families have worked incredibly hard and clearly value the school, as 89% of students committed to return next year. Graduates and parishioners stepped forward with donations. Some agreed to pay partial tuitions for students who otherwise couldn’t afford it. 

I’m thrilled to say that St. Bartholomew School will remain open. We still have work to do to make sure that we find a sustainable model, maybe even a new model, that will preserve the great gift of a Catholic education there. 

Doing so will require sacrifice. Not just the sacrifice of parents whose children attend the school but all of us who believe strongly in what a Catholic school provides: a great education, yes, but also values, character, moral teachings, and the gift of our faith that is shared openly.

Schools add so much to a parish. I love to hear the beautiful noise of children on the playground. I enjoy seeing moms and dads drop off and pick up their kids in the mornings and afternoons and the friendships that develop. I love how school pageants, plays, holidays and special occasions are celebrated in ways that make our faith come alive. I love that students go to Mass and receive the sacrament of Reconciliation. We have many wonderful public schools in our area, but they are prohibited from these meaningful aspects of our faith.

I thank the Lord that St. Bartholomew School will remain open thanks to the sacrifices of so many, and I pray for the many other parishes in the diocese facing the same situation. They, too, sacrifice and work hard to keep their schools open, all the while mindful of the possibility that it may have to close some day.

So, as we celebrate Catholic Schools Week, I encourage us all to think carefully about the real value of Catholic education to our children, our families, our parishes and the entire community. Do we believe in a Catholic education enough to sacrifice even if we don’t have children in a Catholic school? Do we believe enough to continue to sacrifice even after our children have graduated? Do we who are single or married with no children believe enough to lend our support to Catholic schools?

I will do everything in my power to help our children receive the same blessing of a Catholic education that I did. I know of many others who also recognize the importance of their own time in Catholic schools during their formative years. Let’s do all we can to make sure that gift is passed down and paid forward to the children of today and tomorrow. They deserve it just as much as we did.

Thank you, God, for the gift of so many who stepped forward at St. Bart’s and who sacrifice for their own schools. Thank, too, for all who will step forward in the future. For our Catholic schools to survive and thrive, they need communities that care deeply about all the blessings they provide and are willing to sacrifice to make sure this great gift is given to the next generation.

I hope you’ll join me in doing all that we can to make that happen.