The visit by Staten Island Borough President Vito J. Fossella to Blessed Sacrament School was rather remarkable, both for what he said and for what he did, at the Oct. 24 press briefing. Cardinal Dolan and Michael Deegan, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, were there too as well as Auxiliary Bishop Peter Byrne, the pastor of Blessed Sacrament; principal Joseph Cocozello and members of the school’s eighth-grade class.
The borough president didn’t only commit $457,300 to 21 Catholic schools and organizations on Staten Island to enhance sports and arts programs available to all students, regardless of their religion or background; the funding would also defray the cost of participation in the CYO program.
That, by itself, was a rare occurrence, asserted Cardinal Dolan in his remarks. The cardinal said he hears from political leaders quite frequently and the calls fall into two categories: the first are those who ask him if he can enroll the child of one of their constituents into a Catholic school, and the second is to ask why we are closing one of our schools?
The cardinal says when he asks an elected official to extend help to Catholic schools, the response usually is “a quick hang-up.”
Fossella took his initiative a step further, saying in a news release, that the decision he and his wife, Mary Pat, made to enroll their three now-grown children in the borough’s Catholic elementary and high schools was “one of the best decisions we made.”
During the gathering at Blessed Sacrament, Fossella spoke personally about the lift that playing CYO ball provided his son Dylan, now 27 and engaged to be married, by creating an opportunity to make lifelong friends.
“The Holy Spirit teaches us in so many different ways,” Fossella said. “Today is an example of how He teaches the children of today so they can become the stewards of tomorrow.”
Deegan, like the good Catholic school educator he has been for his entire career, picked up on the “teachable moment” Fossella provided with his words and deeds at Blessed Sacrament.
The lesson to be learned by the leadership Fossella shows on Staten Island and in New York City “is an affirmation of every parent who sends their child to a Catholic school.”
The “extraordinary difference” Catholic schools make to New York City and State and the nation has been demonstrated over the past couple of years, maybe more so than ever, Deegan said. Even with educational rigor achieved in a setting of faith and discipline, “it becomes increasingly more difficult to choose to send children to a Catholic school.”
That’s why it’s important to learn from Fossella “that it is possible for government to help support Catholic schools.” Deegan said he hoped that elected officials in City Hall, Albany and Washington, D.C. “learn from the leadership and courage of Mr. Fossella.”
He suggested public officials “start to examine and think about how they can honor parental school choice by providing the support our schools need to do what we do here every single day.”
Borough President Fossella’s support is a good first step. You can guarantee the funds will be appreciated and put to good use, if the reaction at Blessed Sacrament was any indication. Other steps must be taken to bring about a large-scale effort that can bring dynamic change.
The Catholic schools, in the archdiocese and across the nation, need a full hearing before it’s too late. The question is: Are there enough political ears willing to listen? A more primary question is: Can Catholic schools, and their families and other supporters, mount such a campaign?
Cardinal Dolan, as he spoke, talked about “the genius” of the Catholic school ethos being that “it’s a bottom-up, we’re in it together” approach involving families, neighbors, priests, religious sisters, principals, alumni and community leaders.
Everyone pitches in, the cardinal said, “and makes these schools as gritty, as determined, as excellent as they are.”
“Thank you, Borough President Fossella, for giving us that example.”