New USCCB education chairman reflects on strengths, challenges of Catholic schools

SPOKANE -- Outside of parish life, the two areas that Bishop Thomas Daly has been most involved in are vocations and education. At times he has been a vocations director, a seminary rector, a teacher, a campus minister, and a school president. This has given him years of experience to draw on as he assumes the role of chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Catholic Education.

"I feel that I've been blessed as a priest and as a bishop to have that experience because it's very helpful as we continue to strengthen our Catholic schools," Bishop Daly said in a Dec. 14 interview with The Pilot, during which he talked about the challenges Catholic schools face today and possible solutions.

"We have to really look and say 'What is it that's going on in our school, and why is this school Catholic, and why do we need this school? That's a lot of self-reflection, beyond accreditation," he said.

Ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1987, Bishop Daly earned his master's degree in education from Boston College in 1996. In 2011 Pope Benedict XVI made him an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of San Jose in California, and in 2015 Pope Francis named him Bishop of Spokane in Washington.

During the bishops' General Assembly in November 2020, Bishop Daly was nominated to be the chairman of the Committee on Catholic Education, of which he was a member. He will serve for one year as chairman-elect before beginning a three-year term at the conclusion of the bishops' 2021 Fall General Assembly.

One "general challenge" that Catholic schools face, Bishop Daly noted, is how secular society has moved from tolerating religious practice to being "indifferent" and then to exhibiting "a hostility" toward the Church, particularly regarding its teachings on marriage and family life.

"As Catholic schools, we have to be very clear on what we stand for, the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus and the Church," Bishop Daly said.

There is also the challenge of making Catholic education affordable for families.

"I think Catholic education always requires sacrifice and commitment, but it shouldn't put people in the poorhouse. So we have to find ways that economically make it possible," Bishop Daly said.

Then, there is the problem of schools having poor leadership, which can lead them to become indistinguishable from other private schools.

"What makes them worse than secular private schools is that people send their kids there thinking it's going to help their faith, and it doesn't do anything. In fact, it sometimes harms their faith. So we really have to examine why we have Catholic education," Bishop Daly said.

"We have these schools for the salvation of souls," he said.

Many of the challenges and strengths Bishop Daly identified involve building community and understanding the value of Catholic education.

He emphasized that priests need to understand the importance of Catholic education and the role of the school in the parish. To this end, he has sent pastors to participate in Notre Dame University's summer master's program to teach priests how to be involved in Catholic education.

He said bishops and priests must "show the people of God that they are committed, as spiritual leaders of parishes and their schools."

The other side of that, he said, is that schools and families need to understand that they are part of a parish.

"Schools are part of a parish, parishes aren't part of schools, and that's a crucial distinction," Bishop Daly said.

Additionally, faith-filled people who understand the mission of Catholic education must be found to lead schools and educate children. Bishop Daly said this begins with guiding young people in their faith.

He saw this in his own experience as a teacher, as he formed lasting relationships with his students at Marin Catholic High School in Marin County, California. He even officiated the weddings of some of his former students.

"Those types of relationships can be formed where you help develop the faith of young people, and they, in turn, develop the faith of their children," he said.

A strength that Bishop Daly identified in Catholic schools is that they create communities where children know that people care about them.

"I think there's a lot of sadness in society because people don't know how much God loves them. And when you know God loves you, you're able to love someone else," he said.

What he thinks Catholic schools could do better, he said, is help children become disciples, "learners of Jesus Christ."

He said he sees two opposite extremes, as some schools emphasize social justice while others focus on defending the faith without seeing how the two are connected.

"You have to know the faith, and you have to live the faith, and part of living the faith is caring about people," Bishop Daly said.

He cited a recent study of why young people are leaving the faith, entitled "Going, Going, Gone," conducted by Georgetown University and Saint Mary's Press Catholic Research Group. The study found a commonality among people who break from the Church: no one modeled the faith for them or helped them ask questions, or tried to give them answers.

"Catholic schools do that. They should provide places where kids can 'seek God with a sincere heart,' as we say in the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer," Bishop Daly said.

He said one thing that Catholic Schools can do that secular schools cannot is teach about the dignity of the human person as beloved sons and daughters of God.

"If we believe that God gave us his only son to save us," Bishop Daly said, "that becomes the greatest incentive and the reason to try to strive for ending the strife of racism and disunity. And it's not going to be secular programs or quotas or anything like that. It's (believing in) the dignity of the human person."

He believes that at this time of the coronavirus pandemic, when society is so divided, people need hope. He clarified that hope is not "wishful thinking" or "optimism."

"The best definition of hope is 'reality grounded in faith.' The reality is, these are difficult times, but faith tells us those words of Jesus, 'I am with you till the end of the age.' That grounds us, and that is our cause of hope, that through God's help and our willingness to exercise good things, we can bring about a certain amount of healing," Bishop Daly said.