National viewpoint

I had the privilege last week to attend the International Catholic Stewardship Conference in Chicago. People representing schools, parishes and whole dioceses came together to share best practices and deliver a message of hope, affirmation and tangible success in the ministry of raising funds and charting a course for the future. The overall tone of the gathering was one of optimism, joy and positive results due to hard work, cooperation and a sense of shared responsibility for the future of the institutions we hold dear. 

I was struck by the success stories from areas of the country where Catholics are few and far between. Rural Minnesota, Alaska and Wyoming have thriving dioceses that seem to supplant their challenges of sparse populations spread over vast territories with eager volunteer and clerical leadership that focuses on the missions at hand and not the logistical or financial hardships they must contend with.

The overall focus of the conference was the challenge to “walk in the footsteps of Pope Francis” that is, to be bold, open, joyful and humble as we live our lives as servants of the Lord. 

Of course, the most tangible benefit of attending such a gathering is the sharing of factual data and experiences that have proven to be successful. It was heartening to know that the challenges we face here in our diocese are not unique or insurmountable. Some facts: American Catholics comprise the largest single faith group in the United States, (66.6 million). That represents 22 percent of the nation’s population and that number has grown over the last three decades. On average Catholic households donate more than $560 each to charitable causes and to the Church.

Catholic communities have changed over time to reflect the broader demographic changes in our country. Two decades ago, 13 percent of American Catholics were foreign born. Today, that has risen to more than 33 percent.  One in five Asians is Catholic, as are three million African-Americans. A third of Catholics are Hispanic in origin but only three percent of priests are Hispanic and only 25 percent of parishes have a Mass in Spanish.

The implications of these demographic changes have to be addressed in terms of current and future viability. Many parishes have shown that diversity need not be a barrier to successful fund raising. This message must be shared throughout the country and particularized for each diocese. Importantly, there is a need for new ways to engage more Catholics and new and more powerful messages that ties participation in Catholic community to financial support. Even in the heavily Catholic northeast, there is a need to tie the work of the Church to the well-being of the larger community by documenting the Catholic outreach, and therefore attracting financial support to the actions of the Church from those who may not be Catholic.

In addition to overall issues affecting the Church, the conference had tremendous data to share on the health of our Catholic schools. As is the case across the nation, the student population is now more diverse. One in five Catholic school students is from a racial minority and another 15 percent are Hispanic/Latino. These portions are twice what they were in 1970. Nationwide, Catholic schools enroll a third of minority students who use private education. On average 17 percent of students are not Catholic, in some schools that figure rises to 25 percent. Both trends will also change the nature of Catholic school alumni. Just as in the pews, cultural awareness will be critical to alumni outreach. 

Across the country funding for Catholic schools is a growing challenge. Tuition in parish-based elementary schools covers about 68 percent of costs. The equivalent portion for Catholic high schools is 81 percent. Costs and tuitions have risen dramatically in part because of the complete change in the teacher cohort from primarily religious to overwhelmingly lay.

It was heartening to learn that our issues are shared by many thoughtful and concerned leaders in other dioceses. The way forward requires prayer, focus, an intense command of the applicable data and the engagement of lay and clerical leaders with a spirit of cooperation and mutual dedication to our mission. They are doing it in Wyoming! Surely we can do it here.  

Anchor columnist James Campbell is director of the diocesan Development Office/Catholic Charities Appeal/Foundation to Advance Catholic Education.

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