Catholic Education in Philadelphia

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Witnesses, Teachers and A New School Year


“A good teacher is like a candle, consuming itself to light the way for others.”

Author unknown


As I reflect on the gift of Catholic education during this start of the new school year, I am immediately brought back to my own memories of Catholic school.  Beginning at the age of five I entered into what has become the most significant influence in my life outside of my family.  Now, thirty eight years since my first day of Kindergarten I am mindful of the reality that I have never left the setting of a Catholic school whether as a student, a teacher or an administrator.  And I consider this one of the most important accomplishments of my life.

Without question the heart and soul of this experience has been the teachers and staff members that reached out to me along the journey.  Even in my current role, there is no greater impression left upon me than that of the dedication of our own Catholic school teachers across the archdiocese that give of themselves each and every day.  My gratitude to these religious and lay men and women that come into our schools each day can’t be summed up in words.  I never, ever take for granted the work that they do.  It was Pope Paul VI who was quoted as saying: Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” [Address to the Members of the Consilium de Laicis] (2 October 1974) So as we begin this new school year I am reminded of the many witnesses that we have in this Archdiocese and of those that have come into my life over the years. It took me over 30 years to write the following to my own second grade teacher upon being named Secretary for Education here in Philadelphia last year:


Dear Sister Francis Mary:

Summer greetings to you from a long lost student!  I write today to simply say thank you for the influence that you have had on my life.  Enclosed with this mailing you will see what prompted me to write this letter; an announcement from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

As I reflect on the experiences that I have had and then open my eyes to where God’s Spirit has led me to today I can’t help but reach out to a few of you that were so instrumental to my vocation as a Catholic educator.  I guess this letter is proof of the fact that we never truly see the results of the seeds that we planted many years ago unless someone takes the time to let us know.

I hope that you will take the time to review the items that I have sent to you so that you can see where my life has taken me over the past decades since leaving Saint William’s.  Even as I write this letter I can’t help but have a smile on my face as I think of the wonderful community that I was a part of back then.  It is my sincerest belief that had it not been for you and for the many others that touched my heart that I would not have become the person that I am today.

Peace and all good things,



It is my fervent hope that someday our wonderful educators will realize the impact they have had on the hearts and minds of the students whom they serve.  You are indeed candles that light the way for others!


The Transfer Advantage


This week we have unveiled a new initiative here in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that we are confident will attract even greater numbers of students to our 17 high schools. We are calling it the TRANSFER ADVANTAGE.  Our purpose is simple: to attract potential students in the charter and public schools who are interested in learning more about the great gift of Catholic education here in our area.  And what are some of the ADVANTAGES of coming to a Catholic high school?

  • The Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in word and in deed every single day.  Is there anything better than a young person marinating in the culture of Catholic education for 7 hours each day for 180 days each year?
  • The academic performance of our Catholic schools is superior.  Did you know that $320,000,000 in scholarship offers were made to our graduating senior class this year? (That’s over $88,000 per graduate for those of you keeping track at home!)
  • Our schools are places of community with high standards of security and safety.
  • Our schools encourage parent involvement and we see our role as partners in education with our parents who are getting involved more and more each day at our schools.
  • We have AP courses that will challenge any other school’s offerings
  • Smaller class sizes give us the opportunity to offer more individualized attention to our students and their families on a regular basis.
  • Technology integration, one-to-one initiatives and emphasis on 21st century learners are a hallmark of our schools.
  • High sets of expectations are set by our discipline codes and admissions policies.
  • Financial aid is abundant this year!  More than we ever made available before….
  • College placement levels for our graduating seniors are at an all time high and graduation rates are just short of perfect (which we are striving for).
  • Our teachers are awesome!
  • Our administrators are awesome!
  • Our staff and our coaches are caring and nurturing!
  • We are excellent stewards of our resources and have adopted a new mindset of growth, innovation and change.
  • As a graduate of Catholic schools you will join a network of alumni across the country that are interested in your gifts, talents and abilities simply because of your affiliation with our schools.
  • And, to stress again, because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is central to who we are and what we do, you will be part of a community of witnesses that will teach you much more by what they do rather than what they say.

Any student, parent, family or anyone else interested in being a part of this outstanding ADVANTAGE, we are offering a $1000 transfer grant to immediately.  It’s that simple.  We are so confident in our ADVANTAGE that we will offer this grant to any accepted students no matter their financial need.  Moreover, if there is financial need over and above this grant, we are there to help.

Want to learn more about this awesome opportunity?  Take a look at this website and it will tell you everything you need to know:

In the meantime, I hope that our community will take seriously the ADVANTAGES that Catholic schools have to offer.

My Encounter(s) With A Saint


In January of 1991 I landed in Rome, Italy to begin studies at Loyola University’s (Chicago) Rome Center.  As a wide-eyed college sophomore I was so excited to be in the country of my ancestors and in the city that serves as the center of my faith tradition.  Little did I know that this first landing in Rome would begin a journey for me that would bring me back there time and time again to experience the beauty, richness and tradition of my Church.  Having spent another year in Rome during the 93-94 academic year (and several trips since), I consider the Eternal City, the Vatican and the surrounding hills of central Italy a second home.  Each time I arrive there I am reminded of the great blessings that I experienced there.  Among those experiences were several encounters with Saint John Paul the Great.  It’s even a little surreal to type that on my keyboard!  Saint…wow!  And I had the privilege of being in his presence on many, many occasions.

My most vivid memory was an occasion of profound impact on my life; a private Mass with the Holy Father in his personal chapel within the papal apartments.  My journal entry from February 25, 1991 begins with: “Incredible! Unbelievable! Spectacular!”  The same journal entry, after reviewing the day’s events, ends with “What a beautiful man”.  Having reported to the Bronze Doors of the Apostolic Palace in the pre-dawn hours, we were escorted up to the private offices of the pope and eventually into a small chapel that held no more than 30 people.  It was only after sitting down and taking in my environs for a moment that I came to realize the pope was kneeling only 6 feet away from me, in deep prayer at his kneeler.  He seemingly did not even notice the movement of his guests that day but remained in meditation for at least another 15 minutes before vesting for Mass.  Adorned in Lenten purple and true to his own humility and piety, John Paul presided over a simple celebration of Mass in English for those gathered and each received the Eucharist from him in a deeply personal encounter with this holy man.  At the conclusion of Mass all of us were led into an adjoining room where the pope himself greeted us one after another.  The piercing blue eyes still remain a vivid memory for me.  The thick Polish accent as he spoke: “Ah, Loyola, Loyola.  Students from Loyola.”  My exact words escape me these 23 years later but those were not nearly as important as the encounter, the moment itself when the pope handed each of us present a rosary.  This was his custom tied to his deep love of the Blessed Mother.  We buried my mom with that rosary in 2007.

Thanks to my friend now-Archbishop Tim Broglio, I had so many wonderful, behind the scenes, personal encounters with John Paul. I could go on and on with the stories of my encounters with Saint John Paul the Great in 1991 and in 1993-94.  The Good Friday encounter, the Ash Wednesday Mass, the several audiences, and the second private audience where we recited the Rosary with him.   While many have reflected on the fact that there was never a doubt that this great pope would someday be a saint, it was never a thought that passed through my young mind at the time.  I’ll chalk it up to my own spiritual immaturity at the time.  But these many years later there is cause in my heart to be joyful and humbled at the experiences I had in my second home.  Providentially it was also during those years that, while on a train to Assisi, I met (and got into a theology debate with) a civilian-dressed young man who introduced himself as Charles.  It wasn’t until dinner that night in Assisi that Charles revealed to me that he was the bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota!  20 years later “Charles” is my boss…the Most Reverend Charles Chaput, OFMCap, Archbishop of Philadelphia.

So for those that wonder if the Holy Spirit is still alive and well in our lives, take note.  There are saints among us!  We may never realize it and we may even take it for granted but in the end, God has a purpose and plan for all of us.  Our lives are far from scripted for us by Him, but what I do know is that He guides us into His Divine Providence every step of the way, doing all that He can to prepare us for sainthood.  I have a long, long way to go!  But I thank Him every day for the people (and the saints) that I have met on the journey.

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That’s me in the middle just after greeting the Holy Father!  Here he is handing a rosary to one of my great friends, Brian Fitzpatrick.  Although we look 12, we were really about 20….

Our Purpose, Our Vision: Remarks from The Distinguished Graduate Dinner 2014

On Thursday night March 27th, I had the honor of being the Master of Ceremonies for our Distinguished Graduate Dinner here in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. It gave me the opportunity to share with so many of our colleagues and benefactors my vision for Catholic education. Many present that night have asked that I share my opening remarks on this blog.   So here it is…..

Good evening friends and colleagues in Catholic education:

I am so proud to be here with you tonight as your Master of Ceremonies.  More importantly, I am honored and privileged to have been called to this historic archdiocese as your Secretary for Education to walk in the footsteps of Saint John Neumann not only to reinvigorate but to renew and transform the Catholic schools of our beloved Church.

Rest assured we have one core purpose in this massive undertaking and it’s simple:


Again, our simple core purpose:


 The following poem by Portia Nelson — published in her book, There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery — captures the image that I would like to leave you with tonight:

Autobiography in 5 Short Chapters  

Chapter I
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit … but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.


I would like to suggest to you tonight that as I begin my 10th month in my position, not only are we walking down another street, we are paving it as we go!  Rest assured: we will make history here!

  • We will make history by embracing the opportunity the Faith in the Future Foundation has given us to reinvent the way we do business without sacrificing our Catholic identity
  • We will make history by reinvigorating our commitment to our urban population with models like the Independence Mission Schools
  • We will make history with our already-strong elementary schools by developing clear plans for growth with local boards and pastors
  • We will make history by capitalizing on the State of Pennsylvania’s tax credits programs that are already making a difference in our schools
  • We will make history with our partners at BLOCS who serve us by growing our financial aid and scholarship opportunities
  • And we will make history here in Philadelphia by raising our standards of educational excellence above and beyond any basic or so-called common standards.

The street that we are walking down is one paved with creativity, innovation, option thinking, and above all, it is a street paved with a mindset of growth.  It is a street paved with a mindset of enthusiasm, a mindset of mutual respect and collaboration and above all, it is a road paved with a mindset of mission and action that mirrors the work of Christ himself who commanded us to go and make disciples.  And when we arrive at our destination, when we travel down this road together this will be the headline:

Responding to God’s call, we are the world’s premier center for the teaching mission of the Church

 And so it is most appropriate to gather here tonight to celebrate as a faith community the success of individual graduates, all of whom have made their mark in our world whether in education, or finance, real estate, or in the priestly vocation.  All of our honorees tonight have contributed tirelessly to the work of Catholic education in this Archdiocese but have defined their individual successes in very different ways.  No matter the path they took each of our honorees hold onto one common thread:  Enthusiasm.  Enthusiasm is a difficult word to define.  What we do know however,  is that the Greeks who gave us this word summarized it best: en-theos: meaning “God within”.  The one who is enthusiastic then is one who has God within them; one who exudes excitement, one who conveys a sincere enjoyment for the life that they are living.    And this is what defines our honorees tonight: each one, living different lives, taking different paths, but joined together by the life of God within them…tied together by EN THEOS…tied together by their enthusiasm for this great work of the Church that we call Catholic education.

I’m honored to join all of you — their family, friends, and supporters of Catholic education  — as we acknowledge their individual achievements and pay tribute to the life-defining experience of being a student in a Catholic School. Please join me in welcoming our 2014 Distinguished Graduates:

  • Sister Helen Rapine, IHM – Past Principal & President, Bishop Shanahan High School
  • Brian Zwann – President, COO, CLO and Director of Penn Liberty Bank
  • Eileen Hansen  – Hansen Properties, Inc.
  • And the family of the Most Reverend Joseph P. McFadden, whom we will honor posthumously on this very special evening.

By night’s end we will have recognized so many important people here this evening – including our special guests and distinguished graduates.   But, let me also emphasize our deepest gratitude for the daily sacrifices of the parents and guardians of our children who embrace the legacy of Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Their commitment makes a night like this so essential and equally rewarding.  We thank all of our parents for entrusting to us their most precious possessions!

And now let us pray…….

Honoring Distinguished Grads in Philadelphia

On Thursday, March 27th over 700 people from across the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will join me as I host the Annual Distinguished Graduate Dinner.  I consider it a privilege not only to host this event but to serve as the evening’s Master of Ceremonies.  This tradition dates back long before my arrival in this historic archdiocese but the excitement around the event itself never dwindles.  As the plans come together, as people clamber for seats at this “must see” event, it causes me to pause and reflect on how important our alumni are to our Catholic community.  After all, isn’t the success of our graduates one sure and certain way to measure how much Catholic education impacts our world?
Catholic school alumni are the most important recruiting tool that we have.  And while I know the term “recruit” is a bad word in the world of athletics, it is in fact the term we use when we talk about admission into our schools.  After all, Catholic schools by their very nature must recruit students to attend the school.  Recruitment is the process by which we present our product to the public and hope that what we have to offer appeals to their needs as a family.  And it is the alumni, especially those that live locally, that serve as our front line sales people when it comes to recruitment.  Never under-estimate the power of the word of mouth.
We know that our alumni relationships must be strong because the mission of Catholic education is at stake.  Each time an alumnus of a Catholic school succeeds so too does the whole system.  The thousands of Catholic schools around this great nation and the millions of students entrusted to our care are part of a wonderful tradition.  Whether in California, Florida, Maine or the Delaware Valley, the success of one is the success of all.  Rest assured when young people go into the world prepared for work and excited about citizenship they will often mention their school as a place where their success began.  Combined with the small world in which we literally now live, the networking that takes places with these alumni can not be underestimated.
Finally, it should be noted that our alumni have a critical role in the future of the Church.  Time and time again, studies reveal that our graduates remain connected to the Church in a variety of different ways.  As one study stated “Graduates of Catholic schools are more closely bonded to the Church, more deeply committed to adult religious practices, happier, and more supportive of religious perspectives on women and have more confidence in other people, more gentle images of God, and a greater awareness of the responsibility for moral decision-making. ” (National Opinion Research Center [NORC] 1988 General Social Survey).
And it is for this very reason that we gather this week to celebrate here in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia; to honor those that have distinguished themselves in this regard.  We lift up and hold out these great models of our graduates: The late Bishop Joseph McFadden, Mr. Brian Zwaan, Sister Helen Rapine, IHM and Ms. Eileen Hansen.  Why?  Not because of what we have accomplished in our Catholic schools but because of what they have accomplished in their lives!
Read more about the lives of these Distinguished Graduates by visiting
This year’s recipients
Joseph McFadden headshot
Most Reverend Joseph P. McFadden (Posthumous)
  • Bishop of Harrisburg
  • St. Thomas More High School for Boys
  • Our Lady of Lourdes, Philadelphia
Brian Zwaan headshot
Brian Zwaan
  • President, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Lending Officer and Director of Penn Liberty Bank
  • Archbishop John Carroll High School
  • St. Denis, Havertown
Sister Helen Rapine headshot
Sister Helen Rapine, IHM
  • Principal and President, Bishop Shanahan High School
  • West Catholic High School for Girls
  • St. Patrick, Norristown | St. Rose of Lima, Philadelphia
Eileen Hansen headshot
Eileen Hansen
  • Hansen Properties, Inc.
  • Little Flower High School for Girls
  • St. David, Willow Grove

365 Days of Francis


The hit Broadway musical Rent asks the very profound question, “how do you measure a year?”  After laying out the idea that perhaps it’s 525,600 minutes, the song really never goes on to answer the question instead leaving us pondering how exactly we measure our own lives.  So 1 year into this transformational pontificate of Pope Francis of Argentina, how could we possibly measure his effect on not only the lives of Catholics but on the life of the world?  After all, everywhere you turn these days you see another article (or blog like this one) about the so-called Francis-effect.  Every attempt to capture exactly what Papa Bergoglio has done in his first year highlights not only his words but his actions.  “By these,”  Jesus said, “they will know you are my disciples.”

One year in and here’s what we know:

  • Pope Francis lives like Saint Francis.  Humility, service, outreach to the marginalized, and a genuine love of the Gospel mandate to welcome home the poorest among us.  That “home” is in the arms of a Church that is compassionate, gentle and ever-present to the least among us.  The radical message that Pope Francis brings to the Church of the early 21st century is no different that what his namesake, Francis of Assisi, brought to central Italy during his own life (1182-1226).  Namely, the Church of the proud, the Church of the arrogant, the Church of the closed-minded is the Church of yesterday.  Instead, the people of God are in fact the Church and it is our duty and our salvation to welcome the least of our brothers and sisters into the love of Jesus Christ.  Talk about a shift in focus!  And while the Church has always been concerned about this charism of the Gospel, it is Pope Francis that has not only taught this but has lived it: just the like the man from Assisi.
  • Pope Francis has captured the world’s attention not by what he has said but by what he has done.  Just look at the last week’s reviews on his first year.  Most have been a retrospective of pictures and not a review of his writings.  Very few references to his first encyclical letter, The Light of Faith, and even fewer references to his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel.  Why?  I suspect that it’s because when all is said and done, the world will long remember this man not for his writings but for his actions.  The embracing of children, the blessing and kiss for the disfigured man, the visits to the slums, and the impromptu stops among the people, are all of the moments seared into the memories of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  Thanks be to God!  After all, isn’t this what Jesus called us to be: people of action?
  • Pope Francis was a man destined for this very moment in Church history.  I have heard it said (so I can’t claim is as my own) that Pope John Paul II told us what to do, Benedict XVI told us why we do it, and Francis is DOING it.  Interesting take, I think, on the link between the popes of my lifetime.  Of course, this is a sweeping generalization and it is not meant to diminish the gifts of these three men.  Nevertheless, it does give us some insight into the work of the Holy Spirit in our Church.  As Catholics we believe that when a conclave happens the Holy Spirit has already chosen the next pope.  It’s just that the cardinals need to figure out who the Spirit has chosen!  When look at through the prism of faith it makes complete sense as to why this humble servant from Argentina was thrust on to the world stage at this very moment in our history.  The Church is in need of great reform.  But perhaps it’s not doctrinal reform or theological reform because Francis has not changed a single teaching of the Church.  The Reformation of Francis (or the Francis Effect) is quite literally a call to action to the one billion Catholics around the world to rise out of complacency and indifference into a mindset of love in action.  We are not simply a contemplative Church, we are a Church of action.  I like to say that the most important words of the Mass (beyond the words of consecration) are these:  “The Mass is ended.  GO!”  Why?  Because it’s easy to have faith INSIDE the walls of the church.  It’s easy to love your neighbor INSIDE the walls of the church.  But the Gospel mandate is not about what we do for one hour on Sunday, it’s what we do OUTSIDE of the walls of the Church!

So as we come to the end of Francis’ first 525,600 minutes as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, it’s probably a perfect time for all of us to ask, how am I spending my days as one of the Lord’s followers?  Jesus never said “say what I say”.  Remember what the Lord said to us at the Last Supper when he washed the disciples feet?  “As I have DONE so you also must DO.”  As you can see, we don’t have to look far to see how much of an impact we can have in a very short time if we focus on the simple things!


Why Catholic Schools Week?


This week marks a ritual for all of us working in the mission of Catholic education across the United States.  It is the national celebration of Catholic Schools Week that occurs just about this time each and every year.  And while each diocese and each school chooses to celebrate in different ways, it might also be helpful if we reflect on why we celebrate a week like this in the first place.

The first and most important work of Catholic schools is to make certain that our young people are formed in the faith,  Without question this is our number one priority every single day.  Sure, we have to make sure that this happens in an academically rich setting, using the best tools of technology, and delivered by the most insightful teachers as possible.  But when it comes down to it, the Church counts on us to enrich the lives of our young people in a way that no other educational setting can do by teaching, preaching and living the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I’d say that’s one good reason to celebrate!

Perhaps some of you reading this have no children in Catholic schools, so how relevant is this week to you?  Very!  You see, the very existence of Catholic schools saves taxpayers across the country billions of dollars annually.  Given the escalating costs of public education the average citizen should be pleased to see Catholic schools thriving.  Each and every time a student enrolls in a Catholic school the state saves money.  That is why we continually advocate across the country, at the state level and at the national level, to make sure that Catholic schools are receiving what we deserve so that we can continue to serve the United States in this most important educational endeavor.  We could be the answer to many government officials’ prayers who continually call for educational reform.  To them I say: Take a look at our model.  Efficient. Academically sound. Proven Results.  And, above all, graduates exposed to the Gospel values of service, compassion, and love for others.  Not a bad workforce we are preparing, wouldn’t you say?

As a product of Catholic schools, a parent of 4 Catholic school students, and as the head of Catholic education for one of the largest archdioceses in the country, I must also encourage our parents to celebrate this week with us.  The investments that you make in your children (what we call tuition) are investments that will pay dividends for life.  It is not unusual anymore for a parent to ask a school leader, “What is the return on my investment if I send my child here?”  Sure, we could go into the millions of dollars of scholarships that our students receive and show that the high school investment of $28,000 over four years landed a student a full ride to Villanova.  And of course, we can track our graduates and show their success stories in the alumni magazines.  But in the end, what we can and must show our current parents is that our number one priority is to make certain that their child comes to know, love and serve the person of Jesus Christ.  And that is something that will pay dividends for life…and beyond!

Yes, there is much to celebrate this week but there is much more to celebrate all year-long as Catholic schools do this work each and every day.  Our nation would do well to sit up and take notice of this most successful model of education and consider working with us more closely to achieve even better results.  In Pennsylvania, we are most grateful for the tax credit model and for the many ways that the state helps us achieve our goals.  But more must be done here locally and across the country.  One week out of the year is simply not enough to highlight the work of Catholic education but it’s a start.