In September of 2010, one of the biggest supporters and cheerleaders for Catholic education in the nation, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, published what I considered at the time to be a call to action for Catholic school leaders. In his article entitled The Catholic Schools We Need (America Magazine, September 2010), the cardinal wrote this: “It is time to recover our nerve and promote our schools for the 21st century. The current hospice mentality—watching our schools slowly die—must give way to a renewed confidence.”
What a challenge and what a call to action! As Catholic school leaders, this single line, at least I believe, is making us all take a harder look at our mentality and our mindset in Catholic education. It’s exactly what we needed to do. You see, I have come to realize as the educational leader of this historic archdiocese where Saint John Neumann founded parochial Catholic education, that the future sustainability of Catholic schools is not dependent on what SKILLS we have as leaders. Rather, it’s much more dependent on the MINDSET that we bring to the people whom we lead. Let me explain.
For decades we in Catholic education have spent countless hours (and dollars) on training our leaders on skills. This consultant showed us how to better manage enrollment. This one came in and showed us how to better manage our finances. The next one came along and showed us what skills were necessary to be a successful leader. But one of the basic things that I think we missed was that no one came along and taught us how to change our mind. No one taught us how to move from the “hospice mentality” to the growth mentality. You see, Catholic schools have been in crisis since I was born in 1971. At least that’s how I remember it. Thus we have done a great job as leaders managing the decline. But it wasn’t until I read this quote above that I came to realize this whole thing isn’t really about who has the best skills…it’s really about who has the best mindset. It’s about the leader who wishes to change the very minds of the organization who will be successful in turning this ship around. If we keep thinking we’re in decline then we will decline. If we don’t have the nerve to go forward with a bit more audacity and courage then we are destined to fail. So that’s what we are doing here in Philadelphia.
In his recent pastoral letter on Catholic education, my boss, Archbishop Chaput has captured the work that we are doing in the simple title of the document: Equipping Saints. In the letter the Archbishop lays out the keys to success in this great work. But he also says this: Today we continue the great witness begun many decades ago by the fourth bishop of Philadelphia, Saint John Neumann. His energy and vision encouraged parishes to open the first Catholic elementary schools, and his success became a model for Church-sponsored education in our country.
You’ll notice: nothing was said about John Neumann’s skills (although there were plenty). Instead, we reference his energy and vision. That’s what we need to emulate. And that’s what we are trying to do here in Philadelphia. And this is just the beginning! We are changing the mindset across the entire organization and we are being bold enough to plan for growth, innovation and change. Is it tough? You bet it is! As I like to say, this is the organization that took 500 years to forgive Galileo, so we sometimes don’t move too quickly! But we are moving away from a hospice mentality and re-creating the energy, vision and enthusiasm of Neumann. Rest assured, we’re doing all the right things and getting all of the right “skills” down to a science as we explore new governance models, innovative teaching strategies, and creative marketing techniques. But as I said, all of that will fail if we do not embed those changes into a culture that really believes that we can turn this ship around. After all, this is where Saint John Neumann walked and where he himself had the vision and audacity to set up Catholic schools as a system integral to the teaching mission of the Church. His mindset, like ours today, was one of option-thinking. He was never caught up in what we couldn’t do. He moved forward believing in what could be done and seeing what no one else could see. Thanks be to God for John Neumann!
I could keep going but…it’s a busy time here as we celebrate our Catholic schools across the United States this week. As we move from hospice to hope…as we equip saints for life in this world and the next….one thing is for sure: this is a time to celebrate the heritage of Catholic schools and shout from the mountain tops the great gift they are to this nation and to world.
You can read the full text of Archbishop Chaput’s Pastoral Letter on Catholic Education and Parish Faith Formation here: