Archbishop George J. Lucas celebrates the annual eighth-grade Mass at St. Cecilia Cathedral on Feb. 3. The Mass is a traditional part of Catholic Schools Week for Omaha area schools and typically draws about 1,200 eighth-graders to the cathedral. This year the schools participated remotely via livestream because of COVID-19 concerns. Students of all grades from St. Cecilia School worshiped in person. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

Shepherd's Voice

Celebrating the blessing of Catholic schools

As Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Omaha conclude their celebration of Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 30 through Feb. 5, Archbishop George J. Lucas is joined by Vickie Kauffold, superintendent of Catholic Schools to talk about the importance of Catholic education and the many benefits enjoyed by nearly 19,000 students of all racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds attending the 70 elementary and secondary Catholic schools in the archdiocese.

 

Q. Archbishop, as the celebrations around Catholic Schools Week come to a close, what do you feel is the importance of Catholic schools?

Archbishop Lucas: As we come to the end of Catholic Schools Week, it’s a great chance to hold up the good work of Catholic schools that goes on all year long. Personally, Catholic schools have played an extremely important part in my own life. My parents blessed me with a Catholic education and I’m more grateful for it all the time.

It was a great reinforcement of what we were receiving at home. What my sister, brothers and I learned in school we also brought home, and I think my parents were enriched by that, and I’m very grateful for that. It’s played a crucial role in my own life and my own vocation.

In our archdiocese, we have 70 Catholic schools. And I think for an archdiocese our size that’s remarkable. So many young people from a variety of backgrounds have the opportunity to encounter the Lord in a community of faith – which is what our Catholic schools are – and have a chance to experience and practice that faith there at school, and also bring what they learned at home to school and what they experience at school home to enrich their families.

 

Q. Vickie, as superintendent of Catholic Schools, what insights can you offer about how schools are passing along the faith to their students?

Kauffold: Well, there’s a few things that come to mind. A regular part of our Catholic schools is weekly attendance at Mass. It’s a really important opportunity for students to be present with the Lord, to pray together with their classmates. And in my own experience as a principal in a diocese where we went to Mass every single day as part of the school day, you grow a lot when you have the opportunity to receive the graces of going to Mass. So, I’m thankful that our kids have that opportunity.

And our schools also embrace opportunities to teach the kids how to live a life of service and mercy toward others. They do that through service days out in the community. They also do that through opportunities to support food pantries or sending supplies to students in underserved areas of the world. But it’s not just Catholic Schools Week that we do things like that. Those are things that happen throughout the whole year when there’s need.

I’m even thinking of one of our projects where we write and send letters to seniors. Kids don’t realize how important those letters are to the seniors and how much it makes them feel welcomed, loved and cared for. So, little things like that are the values of a Catholic school. This week, some of our schools have done some things to promote vocations, have brought in seminarians to talk with kids about vocations. Those are important things that we need to keep promoting all the time.

Archbishop Lucas: If I could just add to that, I mentioned that my Catholic education was an important part of my own vocation. No matter what vocation our young people may feel that they’re called to, they do have the opportunity to know, in our Catholic schools, that the Lord has a plan for them. And that plan is going to be good for them, and it’s going to be good for other people. Through study of our faith, through prayer, and through developing the other talents that God has given them, which our schools help them do so well, that’s how they discover what the call of the Lord is and have the confidence to respond to it.

 

Q. Vickie, teachers and administrators have a lot to do with the success of Catholic schools, such as high test scores and graduation rates. What do you think is the difference that sets Catholic school apart?

Kauffold: In my experience, I think it’s about the partnership that we have with the parents in the education of their children. And I believe that there’s a level of self-discipline that is expected from our students, that the parents desire for their children to learn and to continue to practice. And, all the good things that happen in our schools, they don’t happen in isolation. The success can only happen if the schools and the parents form a positive, mutually respectful partnership to help build up the kids.

 

Q. Archbishop, would you agree, the same partnership is necessary in matters of faith?

Archbishop Lucas: The whole value of Catholic education can’t be realized fully if there isn’t a vibrant partnership with parents. That’s in a sense the only reason why we exist. God gives to parents the primary responsibility to raise and educate their children. Early on in society, and especially in the Catholic community, we’ve thought, if we work together with families, for example, in a parish or in the larger community, we can create an environment that is good and enriching for the kids and that assists the parents in what’s primarily their responsibility. More and more these days, those of us who are involved in Catholic education, have to take the time with parents to make sure that we all are on the same page in terms of what the mission of the school is.

We really are working as part of the mission of the church, so our job, first and foremost, is to communicate Jesus and to invite our students into a relationship with him. Parents want other things for their kids too, which are also good things, and our schools are excellent at providing so many aspects of education that enrich the lives of the kids. But our first interest is in the faith life of our students and their families. That’s really what we’re dedicated to.

You mentioned test scores and other things where our schools display excellence. And as Vickie mentioned, our students come through our schools developing habits about studying, about respecting themselves and their gifts and the use of their time that serve them well as they continue their education, and also in however they use their gifts throughout their lives.

 

Q. Vickie, there are reports of a nationwide teacher shortage, and we’re not immune from that condition in Nebraska. What would you say to the college student or young person trying to figure out his or her career path?

Kauffold: The teacher shortage is real, and it’s not just in Catholic schools here in Nebraska. It’s not just in Nebraska, it’s across the entire country. My office has made a concentrated effort to go out to college career fairs, to engage with young college students to help them think about Catholic schools. My line to them is: “Where are you from?” And then my next line is, “We have a Catholic school close by there. You want to teach in a small rural school? We have it. You want to teach in a large school? We have it. You want to teach in a school with diversity? We have it.” So, it’s asking: “What do you want? We’ve got it. So come teach with us.”

Teaching is such a noble profession. Teachers naturally have caring hearts and a desire to form the hearts and minds of their students, preparing them, not just for this life, but for the next life.

You can’t tangibly measure the influence a teacher has in the life of a child. Sometimes it’s years before a teacher learns what kind of an impact they had on a child’s life. And sometimes you may never know until you receive your reward in heaven. So, if I could do a pitch here, I’d like to invite all current and future teachers to consider joining the mission of teaching in a Catholic school.

The culture of our Catholic schools is centered around the core values of our faith and Catholic school teachers are drawn to that sense of mission that’s ingrained in that faith-based culture. Educators who work in a faith-based environment experience close bonds that are created between the staff they work with, the students they teach, the parents they’re in cooperation with, and that creates a really unique sense of family. So, a challenge for people, come live your faith out loud and share in the teaching of the faith by coming to one of our Catholic schools.

 

Q. On another note, Archbishop, I think we can all agree, Jesus was a teacher. He taught in the temple, on the seashores, mountaintops, even from the cross. Bishops are the teacher in their dioceses. As the teacher, what is it that you want for Catholic school students, educators and parents?

Archbishop Lucas: I want the best for them, of course. As you say, one of the primary responsibilities given to a bishop is to teach the faith. We have about 240,000 Catholics, plus all of our other neighbors in our archdiocese. I can’t possibly do that by myself. And so, I was so happy when I came here to learn about how many good Catholic schools we have. And I have become even more grateful. So, I want to give a shout out to our Catholic educators, our teachers and administrators, the staffs of our schools. They have so many responsibilities every day to make sure that our students get an excellent education.

But first, as Vickie was saying, we invite people to share in the mission of our schools because of the mission, because of sharing the knowledge and love of Jesus with our students and families, and our teachers and administrators are so good at that. They not only teach well, but they live the faith themselves, and they teach by example. I think our Catholic schools have always run on sacrifice and on witness. And they still do today. They’re such vibrant communities of faith and learning for all kinds of reasons, but primarily because of the hard work and the dedication and the sacrifice and the witness in faith of our Catholic school staffs.

Kauffold: I feel very blessed to have Archbishop leading the diocese here and being superintendent under him because he’s an educator at heart. He’s had that time in the classroom. He understands the struggles that we go through. So, I’m really thankful to be working under you, Archbishop.

Archbishop Lucas: Thanks back to you and the staff of our Catholic Schools Office. You give such great leadership and support to our Catholic educators across the archdiocese. These couple years of COVID have been very challenging times for everybody, of course, but it’s been a particular challenge in schools. I’m so proud of you and of our Catholic educators for what you have been able to do, under difficult circumstances, for our kids. We hear, sadly, stories of some students, other places in the country, who haven’t been able to be in the classroom for months, a year, a year and a half. And we know that they’re missing so much in terms of education, but also the richness of life that we experience together.

There are a lot of different opinions about how we need to do things to face COVID and make the accommodations we need. But I have great confidence in our principals and pastors, those who take the responsibility of forming students in our schools. They take that very seriously, so I hope everybody in the archdiocese will join me in saying thanks to them, and make that very personal when you can. And, thanks to God for their efforts.

 

Q. One last question Vickie. What has been your biggest blessing or blessings as superintendent of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Omaha?

Kauffold: As I’ve mentioned, the support that I get from Archbishop and from (Chancellor) Deacon Tim (McNeil). My staff is extremely knowledgeable and skilled in their areas. So, I’m blessed to have really good people around me. I don’t know that I could have taken these past two years on (without them). It has been extremely stressful, and I’m not even in the trenches where the principals are taking on the battle a little bit more … so I try to be of as much support to them as I possibly can. And it’s only because I have this great support around me that I’m able to do what I’m doing.

And, thanks for all the people who support our Catholic schools, whether by sending your students to Catholic schools or supporting school choice legislation or being a benefactor to our Catholic schools. We really value your support and your input, and I invite you to continue with that. Thank you.

Archbishop Lucas: I say “Amen” to all that. Thanks.