It was the final day of Catholic Schools Week, a dreary and wet winter’s day in the Vailsburg section of Newark, N.J. Stepping gingerly on the marble floor of Sacred Heart Church were 500 children from the parish school, who had come to hear the word of God at a special liturgy to mark the weeklong tribute to Catholic education. When everybody was standing in place, the music started. And from the mouths of these children, who live in one of the toughest and poorest cities in America, came music sweet, miraculous music, music that offered testimony to faith and hope and determination. They sang not because the nuns were watching them or because they were told they must. They sang because they believed. Even in the pews where the worldly eighth-graders stood, mouths were opened wide and out poured sweetness and love and, oh yes, talent and wisdom.
Longing for shelter, many are homeless, they sang, longing for water, many still thirst. Make us your building sheltering others, walls made of living stone.
They knew the nuances of each note, and their voices were clear and loud and filled with meaning.
The children of Sacred Heart School occupy a building that was once filled with kids from other backgroundskids from the Irish and Italian households that made Vailsburg a special neighborhood at the apogee of the American century. But those families are gone now, chased out by fear and sad experience. Sacred Heart was once the center of life in this neighborhood, one of the largest parishes in New Jersey. Now about 500 parishioners are left, and the school is almost entirely African-American and non-Catholic.
In many ways, the presence of Sacred Heart in this poor urban neighborhood is both a miracle and a testament to the Catholic Church’s commitment to the least among us. But the school’s longtime principal, Patrick Byrne, O.A.R., wonders how much longer the miracle can last and how truly committed the church is to these children and their families.
The Archdiocese of Newark is preparing for a new and potentially massive round of parish and school closings and consolidations. Sacred Heart probably will not be on the hit listit is self-supporting but other schools with similar missions will be. And that saddens Brother Patrick, who has been at Sacred Heart for 15 years and had seen 1,000 children graduate and, more often than not, go on to Catholic high school and then to college.
Brother Patrick, a member of the Order of Augustinian Recollects, has heard the murmurs from on high about the cost of urban Catholic schools and the fact that these schools are educating non-Catholic students. The implied, or sometimes not-just-implied, suggestion is that the church’s precious resources would be better used in the education of Catholic kids.
Brother Patrick equates the phrase non-Catholic students with African-American students. True, some African-Americans are Catholic, and not all non-Catholic students are African-American, but the generalization seems fair enough.
I wonder about our commitment to these kids, Brother Patrick said. Catholic schools have been a way to provide the African-American community with a strong education and strong leaders. If we take away the infrastructure of Catholic elementary and high school, well, I wonder what that means about our commitment. Do we still have a vision for a ministry in urban areas?
He told of a mother of one of his students who recently informed him that she and her child would leave the school after this year. She had come to the conclusion that the church was slowly abandoning Newark, a shrunken, impoverished city of 240,000 with a black majority. The mother, Brother Patrick said, had children in St. Rocco’s School, which recently closed, and Bishop Francis High School, which also closed. She did not want to repeat the experience a third time, so she is planning to leave.
I wonder what this means for the church, he said. As we close schools and other institutions, we are no longer a part of the city’s infrastructure. We don’t have a seat at the table. I remember when Cardinal [Theodore] McCarrick was here as our archbishop, he’d tell me that he didn’t care if the children were Catholic or not, as long as they were evangelized with Catholic values, and as long as they came to know and love the Lord.
But now, he said, it seems to be all about who is Catholic, and who is not, and if you’re not Catholic, you’d better be able to pay for your education. Ninety-eight percent of the children who leave Sacred Heart, he said, do so because their families simply cannot afford tuition.
And what are they missing? Beautiful, meaningful liturgies, like the one held to celebrate Catholic Schools Week and the beginning of Black History Month. Sermons like that preached by Sacred Heart’s pastor, a dynamic young priest named Andrew Prachar. At the Catholic Schools liturgy, Father Prachar echoed the words of Mt 5:13-16. Today, you are called to be light, he told the kids. Today, you are called to be salt.
Turning to the eighth-graders, he noted that these young peoplemost of whom already had been accepted by at least one Catholic high schoolwould soon be making decisions that will determine the course of their life’s pilgrimage. If they get an education, Father Prachar said, they can do anything they want.
Do we dare abandon them?