Guest Column > Catholic Church at a Major Crossroads?

By Brian Cunniff
Shore News Today
January 11, 2012

The news that more than 40 Catholic schools, including five high schools, in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia are in line for closure at the end of the current scholastic year has torn through the region over the last week.

With so many residents here at the Jersey Shore originally from the Philadelphia area, the news has affected many people locally, many of whom have a great chance to see their grammar and/or high schools merged with others or closed altogether.

It’s a stark reality in the current Catholic education system and the current Catholic Church in general – economics, declining enrollment in schools and attendance at mass, the changing demographics of many neighborhoods, lack of available priests, etc.

Locally, this community was shocked two Januarys ago when an announcement was made that Wildwood Catholic High School would close. The Wildwood Catholic community – Catholics and non-Catholics alike – rallied feverishly to save their school and so far have done an admirable job making sure this county’s families can continue to have the choice to send their children to a local Catholic high school. But will Wildwood Catholic still be there five years from now? Ten years from now? Twenty years from now? The jury is certainly still out.

The initial reaction when Catholic school closures are announced is to be frustrated and angry with the local leadership of the church. But when enrollments decline, bills pile up and it isn’t financially feasible to keep schools open, that leadership is often faced with no choice.

The shame of it all is that through these school closures – and other things going on within the Catholic Church – many area Catholics are losing their identity with their faith-based group.

In the Philadelphia area, many people proudly profess being Catholic not by quoting scripture or by proclaiming some Catholic ethos. They do it by telling people, whenever possible, where they went to high school. Saying you went to West Catholic, Roman Catholic, Archbishop Prendergast or Father Judge – often stated simply as West, Roman, Prendie or Judge – is an overt way to not only inform people of their educational backgrounds but also a covert way to proclaim their Catholic faith.

Ask a non-Catholic who’s from around Cottman and the Boulevard in the Northeast in which part of the city he lives, he’ll most likely tell you Mayfair. Ask a Catholic the same question, he’ll most likely say St. Matt’s Parish. Just like the Catholic kid from Frankford and Large will say St. Tim’s Parish, the Catholic kid from 10th and Wharton will say Annunciation BVM Parish, the Catholic kid from Ridge and Midvale will say St. Bridget’s Parish or the Catholic kid from 5th and Olney will say St. Helena’s Parish.

My school in the lower Northeast, St. Martin of Tours, was the largest Catholic grammar school in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and probably one of the largest Catholic grammar schools in the country when I attended in the late 1970s to mid 1980s. Our school featured six classrooms per grade, with anywhere from 37 to 40 students in each classroom, totaling around 1,800 students in the school. Somehow, we not only managed, but most of us also thrived. Maybe part of the reason is because nearly all of our parents knew education wasn’t done only from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day while under the watch of ridiculously dedicated and underpaid nuns, priests and lay staff.

Put 37 to 40 students in a public school classroom and watch how many people show up at the next school board meeting to spew vitriol.

Unfortunately, the Catholic educational system has entered into its current state partly through its own success. The fine education most of us received in both grammar and high school allowed us to go on to college and become upwardly mobile. We moved out of the inner-city neighborhoods to the outskirts and suburbs of the city, and in many instances the people who replaced us weren’t using the local Catholic schools or the local Catholic churches.

In its heyday, my church at St. Martin of Tours, which had both upstairs and downstairs churches, presented as many as 14 masses from the Saturday vigil through Sunday evening and had seven or eight priests serving the parish. These days they have six masses, two of those said in foreign languages, and have just three priests on staff.

For many Catholics, though, the loss of schools is just one more element that makes being Catholic difficult. Many have left the church for other reasons, such as the sexual abuse scandals among priests, the feeling that they’re constantly asked to donate more and more money or maybe it’s the theory that perhaps the Church hasn’t done well to keep up with the modern world. Others aren’t happy with the recent changes at Sunday mass with the new Roman Missal. For example, there’s one phrase in the new Nicene Creed that now reads says “… consubstantial with the Father.” I had to look up what consubstantial means, and I write for a living.

The Catholic Church is at a major crossroads here. The church has used its schools to regenerate and reinvent itself through the generations. The young people who attended schools became the strong adult Catholics as they matured. Without Catholic schooling, will this continue?

In many ways, it already hasn’t. Want proof? Go to a Saturday evening or Sunday morning mass at The Church of the Assumption in Wildwood Crest and count how many people under the age of 40 are in attendance. There are some days you won’t need to use more than your 10 fingers.

This may only get worse as more Catholic schools close. Will that slowly make Catholicism a dying religion?

(Brian Cunniff is Catamaran Media’s Cape May County sports editor. He is a practicing Catholic who attended Catholic grammar and high schools in the Philadelphia area before moving to the Jersey Shore nearly 18 years ago.)








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