State-wide conference draws 381 school leaders to Normal

Photo Caption: Cardinal George of Chicago was principal celebrant for the Mass for the Illinois Catholic School Principals and Presidents Conference. With him are Bishop Condon, Bishop Paprocki, and Bishop Jenky.

By: By Jennifer Willems

NORMAL — Words of praise mixed with words of challenge when principals and presidents of Catholic schools in Illinois recently gathered here to explore “A Spirituality of Catholic School Leadership for the 21st Century.”

Sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago and Dioceses of Belleville, Joliet, Peoria, Rockford and Springfield under the auspices of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, the conference drew 381 people to the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in Normal March 18-20 to hear Father Anthony Ciorra discuss the spirituality of leadership and network with their peers. They also had an opportunity to pray together at a Mass concelebrated by their bishops, who participated in a panel discussion of current issues in Catholic education.

“We have the best schools in this country because we’re the only free schools in this country. We are free to talk about everything,” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago told the educators when asked about the role of Catholic schools in the new evangelization.

“You can talk about God — you can’t do that in a public school. You can talk about somebody on the most profound level as a child of God. You can talk about their destiny to live forever with God,” he said. “There’s no question that can’t be addressed.”

Because Catholic schools are the only ones that are free in terms of intellectual freedom, “we should sacrifice as much as we possibly can to keep that witness to freedom and true intellectual freedom alive in a culture that closes down on itself and creates a prison of our own making, both in our minds and our bodies,” he said, drawing applause from his listeners.

Cardinal George praised the school principals and presidents for making Catholic schools academically splendid, but said high graduation rates aren’t enough.

“What’s most important is that (students) come out as free human beings, responsible for their own behavior, knowing who they are now and for eternity and secure in that faith in a God who loves them,” he said.

Joining Cardinal George on the panel, which took place after dinner on March 19, were Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, of Peoria, Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Bishop R. Daniel Condon of Joliet and Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield.

Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford was unable to attend. Conference participants found out the next morning that he had to remain in Rockford to welcome his successor, Bishop-designate David J. Malloy.

Asked how school leaders can meet the challenge offered by the current cultural context, Bishop Condon said it must be done by engaging the culture to the point that our faith infuses everything we do.

“Catholic education has to allow our young people to see everything in life, its very depths, so that science, technology, the arts — everything they deal with in life — somehow has been delved into and viewed from the Catholic point of view so that it’s not just something in religion class,” he said.

Bishop Condon added that students need a broad understanding of God’s relationship to the human person. With that they will be able to deal with everything from prenatal life to the questions of war and peace and the environment. He pointed to a current situation in which the same people who condemn bullying will support the right to kill a child in the womb.

“It makes no sense whatsoever,” Bishop Condon said.

Bishop Braxton encouraged the school leaders to embrace a model of education that makes the entire parish a school of religion “so that everything done in the parish is moving toward forming, informing and transforming people in Christ.”

Bishop Jenky was interrupted by applause more than once when he talked about his expectations of the clergy in regards to Catholic schools. The first time came immediately, when he told the educators “my vision would be that every priest in the diocese be actively supporting Catholic education.”

“I urge my priests to show up,” he said. “When I was a novice, the master of novices said 95 percent of religious life is just showing up. . . . I think that’s true about priests showing up at school. They’ve got to be there for Mass, hear confessions, be on the playground. If they’re able to on busy days be there when the kids leave.”

That presence is “simply essential,” Bishop Jenky said, noting that the pastor should support school administrators, too.

Bishop Paprocki used a hockey metaphor in responding to a question about the spiritual qualities needed by the leaders of Catholic schools. A player and avid fan, he was asked to be a goalie coach at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield and agreed because the head coach had said he never played goalie and didn’t understand it from the “inside.”

“You can read about it, but unless you get inside of it it’s not going to work. I think it’s very much the same thing about being Catholic,” he said. “You can read about the Catholic Church, your can understand the concepts, but unless you live it from the inside you’re not going to have the same feel for it. I think that’s important.”

For that reason, he said the leadership of Catholic schools should normally be Catholic — acknowledging that there are exceptions to every rule. Bishop Paprocki added that it’s important for leadership to include some members of consecrated life.

Zachary Wichmann, director of government relations for the Catholic Conference of Illinois, moderated the panel discussion and said the question most often repeated was about the federal mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services that all employers offer insurance that covers contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients to their employees — including the Catholic Church.

A member of the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Paprocki said it is too early to know what will happen since “the ground is still shifting.”

School leaders can help by resisting the government’s attempt to make it a discussion about contraception and keep the focus on the real issue, which is religious liberty, he said, adding that if people want to talk about contraception this is a good time to examine why the church teaches what she teaches.

Cardinal George said that in the end public opinion will have a tremendous impact on how this issue gets settled and urged the laity to get involved.

“You must step forward. You must tell people what it means. If they allow us to be isolated . . . we will lose,” he said. “You must take responsibility for your role as baptized Catholics in this society.”

In his homily at the Mass, which took place at Epiphany Church, Bishop Jenky said President Obama needs to recognize that Catholic institutions and schools do not exist just to serve Catholics but to reach out to others because we are Catholic.

“We consciously serve Jesus Christ not only in our sanctuaries but in the public forum and under the First Amendment no president . . . has the authority to define for us what is Catholic morality and what is Catholic ministry,” he said, calling this “a moment of renewal and rededication to Christian witness and spiritual combat.”

Brother William Dygert, CSC, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Peoria, said the education conference grew out of a Summit for Catholic School Education that was held for school administrators, pastors and others in school governance in 2007. The date for the recent gathering in Normal was set more than two years ago and the superintendents quickly settled on the keynote speaker, Father Ciorra.

Ordained in 1973, Father Ciorra has been involved in parish life, teaching, administration, retreat work, preaching and formation ministry. He is currently assistant vice president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

In his presentations Father Ciorra invited the educators to consider what it means to be co-workers in the “vineyard” and issues involved in servant-leadership.

Equally important as bringing the administrators together around the theme of spirituality for school leadership was the opportunity for them to learn from each other, Brother William said. This was accomplished by shuffling them four times during the course of the conference so they met new people.

The superintendents will meet in June to talk about a follow-up to this first-ever conference, he said.

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