Students of St. James School, Red Bank, wave hello on their first day of school in September 2020. John Batkowski photo
Students of St. James School, Red Bank, wave hello on their first day of school in September 2020. John Batkowski photo
" Working together as a Catholic school community – parents, priests, religious, teachers, staff, benefactors and Catholic students themselves – let us strive to provide our young people with the kind of faith-filled education that will withstand the test of time. "

We all have been hoping and praying that the effects of the pandemic would be well behind us by the time we opened our Catholic school doors for the 2021-22 academic year.  Sad to say, that is not the case.  Although much progress has thankfully been made in so many areas of endeavor, the pandemic continues to make its presence felt through Delta and other emerging COVID variants causing spikes in the virus in many parts of the country, including here in our own state of New Jersey.

We are fortunate that our Catholic schools will be able to resume classes and other activities “in person” rather than online.  That fact, alone, will make a big difference in teaching and learning as well as in socialization so necessary and so missed last year among and within our Catholic school communities.  Other efforts to keep COVID and its variants at bay, such as the wearing of masks by everyone in all New Jersey public, private and parochial K-12 schools, mandated by the Governor (Executive Order 251), took effect August 9, 2021.

There is a great deal of discontent and opposition being voiced by school parents, including Catholic school parents, to the “mask mandate.”  It should be noted that there is also significant support for the requirement among school parents, including Catholic school parents. All K-12 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Trenton are obliged to observe that statewide public health mask mandate in school facilities, with the exception of times and activities noted in the Governor’s order.  We have no choice since this is a statewide public health requirement for all New Jersey K-12 schools.  We move forward now, grateful to be “back in school,” hoping that the mask mandate will be short-lived.  In the meantime, we need to focus our attention on educating our young daughters and sons as our Catholic schools have done so well throughout our history.

This year, 2021, the Diocese of Trenton celebrates its 140th anniversary.  At the time of its official and formal establishment by Pope Leo XII on August 11, 1881 in what is now Mercer, Burlington, Monmouth and Ocean Counties, there were already 23 Catholic schools up and running along with 68 churches and 51 priests serving over 130,00 Catholics living here.  Catholic education was a priority of the first Bishop Michael J. O’Farrell, who wrote and spoke frequently of its importance to the spiritual life and growth of the nascent Diocese.  Religious orders of sisters and brothers were invited into the territory as the number of Catholic schools and Catholic students grew.

Today, there are 26 Diocesan Catholic grammar schools, 5 Diocesan Catholic high schools and 7 independent or private Catholic schools, educating over 19,300 students.  In addition to the total Catholic school student population, over 36,600 young people participate in parish-based religious education programs throughout the Diocese.

Catholic education remains one of the highest priorities here.  Along with parents who are the “primary educators” of the Catholic faith of their children in the home (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2221-2226) make the greatest sacrifices to ensure that their work continues and grows in Catholic schools in the face of alternatives available to them in tax-supported public schools. Pastors and parish priests, religious women and men, diocesan and Catholic school administrators, Catholic school teachers and staff “partner” with parents in the transmission of Catholic faith and morals by word and example. In our Diocese, Catholic schools require those entrusted with Catholic education to sign a “Christian Witness Statement” to testify to their public commitment to respecting, teaching and living the Catholic faith, an indication that the Catholic school will be what it proclaims – a kind of “truth in advertising.”

For decades, research has demonstrated the excellent quality of the education Catholic school students receive in all subjects, preparing them for future studies and giving them the ability to succeed in life.  Passing on the faith, however, is not simply an “add on” to the other things teachers teach and students learn.  It is integral to their academic, moral and spiritual formation, an education of the “whole person.”

Yes, the pandemic has been a time of real challenge to all of us.  Commitment to our Catholic faith, hopefully, has helped us cope with the burdens we have encountered at home, at work, in school, in our parishes and in society at large.  Working together as a Catholic school community – parents, priests, religious, teachers, staff, benefactors and Catholic students themselves – let us strive to provide our young people with the kind of faith-filled education that will withstand the test of time.