Archive of February 4, 2012

Chicago Catholic schools continue to grow

Chicago, Ill., Feb 4, 2012 (CNA) - Catholic schools in the city of Chicago are celebrating the news that for two years in a row, enrollment has gone up.

That’s the first time that has happened since 1965.

It might be too early to say Catholic schools have turned a corner, but Catholic schools superintendent Sister Mary Paul McCaughey of the Archdiocese of Chicago is optimistic that efforts to promote the schools while keeping them on a sound financial footing will pay off.

“We think we can do it,” she said. “We think we can turn it around. It would be so much fun to see that across the system. Large Catholic school systems haven’t seen that since ’65. But we’re a good city to have this happen to.”

The efforts to spread the good news about Catholic schools, combined with changing demographics in Chicago, are leading to full classrooms, she said.

“We’re really growing in those places where young families are staying in the city, and they’ve grown to love it and they don’t want to leave,” Sister Paul said. “And with the focused scholarship efforts, we’re holding the line in the poorer areas.”

Across the entire archdiocese of Chicago, enrollment is stabilizing, with a drop of less than 1 percent this year. But with 86,502 elementary school students this year, Catholic schools have fewer than half the students they did in 1979-80, when enrollment was 189,611.

Reviewing themselves

The Office for Catholic Schools of Chicago has asked each of its schools to review where they are in terms of maintaining academic excellence and Catholic identity, financial status and their efforts to attract and keep new students. Each school also will be asked to come up with a plan to move forward in the next year, although many are already doing quite well.

“The schools that are doing it have a strong Catholic culture and excellent academics,” she said. “They are engaging parents and refocusing on getting the ‘good whispers’ out there.”

One school that has seen such efforts pay off is St. Therese Chinese Catholic School in Chinatown, which principal Phyllis Cavallone-Jurek said was on the brink of closure when she came seven and a half years ago. Then, the school opened with 180 students. Now, with ongoing efforts to strengthen an already rigorous curriculum and work spreading the word about the school across the city, it has waiting lists at all the lower grades.

There are 286 students, and Cavallone-Jurek has started to consider the possibility of adding space, although that would be difficult in its neighborhood.

The school will likely become even more popular in the next couple of years, as it proudly flies its national Blue Ribbon Award flag for all to see. It’s the first Blue Ribbon in 20 years for a school supported by the Big Shoulders Fund — a local nonprofit that offers scholarships and other financial help to schools where a significant percentage of the students are low-income.

At St. Therese, all students are expected to be two years ahead of grade level in math by the time they graduate, and all students study Mandarin Chinese and Spanish throughout elementary school. Because of the unique curriculum, Cavallone-Jurek said, she has to be careful when admitting transfer students to the upper grades.

Getting the word out

The school’s enrollment grew as Cavallone-Jurek worked with staff and parents to get the word out about the school’s strengths — its academics and its focus on Chinese culture. A student dance group performed whenever and wherever it could, including on morning TV news shows and at neighborhood festivals.

“Schools have to look at what their strengths are,” she said. “What are the non-negotiables that make us really special and unique?”

At St. Hyacinth School in Logan Square, enrollment jumped from 119 students last June to 187 students this year. Principal Annmarie Mahay said that what helped most in terms of marketing was really everything.

“No one thing works,” she said. “Everything we did brought in a few more kids.”

Perhaps the biggest single change the school made was opening a second preschool classroom, so that there are now 40 preschoolers instead of 25. Parents realize that full-day preschool costs less than daycare, and that their children get more out of it, Mahay said.

That follows the pattern for the archdiocese, where preschool enrollment is up 15 percent.

Families who have transferred older children into the school are generally coming from three area public schools, all of which are crowded, Mahay said, so they appreciate the small classes at St. Hyacinth. They also were able to get to know the school through a series of “family fun nights,” when they could mingle with existing St. Hyacinth families and teachers while doing activities in the school’s classrooms.

“It gives them the opportunity to take a look at us,” Mahay said.

The biggest obstacle to families choosing the school is nearly always the cost of Catholic education, Mahay said, although breaking it down into 10 monthly payments helps.

Sister Paul said Catholics should continue to push for more public funding of Catholic schools, whether in the form of vouchers or tax credits, because that would make it easier for families to choose Catholic education, which would be good for the state as well, she said.

“It saves the state money in the long run,” she said. “They just don’t see it.”

Posted with permission from Catholic New World, newspaper for the Diocese of Chicago.

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Vatican astronomer says Big Bang theory in tune with creation history

Vatican City, Feb 4, 2012 (CNA) -

The director of the Vatican Observatory said that the Church is open to the scientific theory that the world began from a cosmic explosion billions of years ago.

“The Big Bang is not in contradiction with the faith, ” Father Jose Gabriel Funes said during a Feb. 2 announcement of a Vatican exhibit that will feature photos, research tools and minerals from the Moon and Mars.

The exhibit titled “Stories from another world: The Universe within us and outside us,” will be on display March 10 - July 1 in Pisa, the birthplace of Galileo, the father of modern astronomy. 

Fr. Funes told CNA at the event that the Big Bang explanation “is the best theory we have right now about the creation of the universe.”

The theory holds that creation began some 14 billion years ago with a colossal explosion in which space, time, energy and matter were created, and galaxies, stars and planets – which are in continual expansion – came to be.

“We know that God is the creator,” he added, “that He is a good Father who has a providential plan for us, that we are his children, and that we everything we can learn by reason about the origin of the universe is not in contradiction with the religious message of the Bible.”

Fr. Funes said that as an astronomer and a Catholic, he is open to this explanation of the creation of the universe, despite “some yet unanswered questions.”

He noted, for example, that while there is no proof of other intelligent life in the universe, “we cannot rule it out,” since studies show that there are nearly 700 planets orbiting other stars.

“If in the future it was established that life, and intelligent life, exists, which I think would be very difficult, I don’t think this contradicts the religious message of creation because they would also be creatures of God,” he said.

Ultimately, Catholics “should see the cosmos as a gift of God” and should “admire the beauty that exists in the universe.”

“This beauty we see in some way leads us to the beauty of the creator,” he said.

 “And also, because God has granted us intelligence and reason, we can find the logos, that rational explanation that exists in the universe that allows us to engage in science as well.”

The Church’s official interest in astronomy dates back to the 16th century. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII decided to officially create the Vatican Observatory to show that the Church is not against scientific development, but rather promotes it.

Since then, the Vatican Observatory has operated out of Castel Gandolfo and uses a telescope located in Tuscon, Arizona, for research.

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US free speech faces Islamic blasphemy law pressure, analyst says

Washington D.C., Feb 4, 2012 (CNA) - Paul Marshall, a religious liberty expert, says that attempts to “export” Islamic anti-blasphemy laws to the West could pose a threat to freedom of speech in the U.S.

Marshall, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, said that many governments deliberately manipulate alleged instances of blasphemy by provoking popular outrage, enabling them to advance “particular policy goals.”

Marshall made his remarks Feb. 3 at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C.

He argued that blasphemy codes in the Muslim world are used to stifle religious minorities, as well as Muslim reformers who support religious liberty, freedom of speech and democracy.

In the U.S., Marshall observed, courts generally uphold the First Amendment’s free speech protections. But he said that America is still threatened by blasphemy laws, and cited efforts by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to promote international laws that ban insults to Islam, through the United Nations.

Marshall also cautioned against a growing tendency towards “extra-legal intimidation,” which involves private individuals pre-emptively censoring themselves -- often under the guise of religious sensitivity -- because they realize that it is “too dangerous” to insult Islam.

To illustrate the effectiveness of this intimidation, he gave multiple examples of books, newspapers and television shows that refused to publish content that could be deemed offensive to Islam, although they chose to carry similar material that mocked Christianity and other religions.

He also recounted the 2010 story of Molly Norris, a Seattle cartoonist, who called for an “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” in response to such self-censorship. She received death threats for the suggestion and, under the advice of the FBI, changed her name and went into hiding.

Marshall also warned of the potential for government policies that seek to restrict speech. He observed that the Obama administration has vocalized a commitment to fighting “negative stereotypes of Islam,” although it has not done the same for other religions.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he noted, invited the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to a meeting in Washington, D.C. to discuss how the U.S. could carry out this commitment.

According to Marshall, the December 2011 meeting featured presentations on how
America should fix its treatment of Muslims. It was also suggested that the U.S. should learn from countries in the organization, which use the death penalty to fight blasphemy within their borders, he said.

Although Clinton claimed to be simply pursuing tolerance, Marshall said it was concerning that she was partnering with an organization that has been aggressively lobbying to restrict free speech through legal controls. 

He urged the Obama administration to end this partnership and instead promote the idea that “in open, boisterous, free societies” all religions will likely be subject to criticism. 

The American founders considered freedom of speech to be critical, Marshall concluded, adding that “their example is always needed, but never more so than in a time such as this.”

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Detroit's blogging bishop documents Roman pilgrimage

Rome, Italy, Feb 4, 2012 (CNA/EWTN News) - Currently on an “ad limina” visit to the Vatican, Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Arturo Cepeda is taking the Michigan faithful along with him by means of his blog.

“My blog is for all of my people in the Archdiocese of Detroit who can actually follow every single movement that I do,” Bishop Arturo Cepeda told CNA Feb. 3. “I call it a ‘virtual pilgrimage.’”

“So I’m blogging every single day, every meeting I go to. I take pictures and send them to my blog. I’m able to text and tell them what my feelings are and what’s going on.”

Ordained in May 2011 as an auxiliary bishop for Detroit, 42-year-old Bishop Cepeda is making the pilgrimage required of all dioceses every five years to meet with the Pope. 

The current visit allows the bishops of Detroit and Cincinnati to update the Pope and the Vatican on the health of the Church in their regions of the U.S.

For Bishop Cepeda, the “updating” goes two ways.

“For example, when I go to meetings with the different Vatican congregations, I give those reading the blog some idea of the issues we’ve just discussed,” he explained.

The auxiliary bishop's relative youth places him in a generation more at ease with the world of new media like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

“I’m a product of the 70s, and that was when that particular technological revolution began,” he said, “so I’ve always been on top of all the technological gadgets that are out there and I feel very comfortable with it all – and I believe that our future generations of Catholics feel very comfortable with it too.”

As the Church approaches Pope Benedict XVI’s “Yearof Faith” which begins in October 2012, Bishop Cepeda also believes that such technologies can aid in the “New Evangelization” of the traditionally Christian West.

“I do believe in the new media and I do believe in communication. It’s a gift not only for society but it’s also a gift for our Church.”

“We want to communicate our feelings, we want to communicate our thoughts. We want to communicate faith, and truth, and how the truth can change our culture.”

Recent blog entries by the bishop have covered his Feb. 3 audience with Pope Benedict, as well as the unusually heavy snow covering Rome.

“Let me tell you, I lived here in Rome for five years and never saw snow fall once. So this is the first time I’ve seen snow in my life here in Rome and it is coming down pretty heavy.”

Detroit Catholics, of course, got an update about it at

“I have already taken pictures and sent them to my blog,” Bishop Cepeda said, clutching his smartphone. “I told them: ‘Guess what! Right after our meeting with the Holy Father it began to snow – so it seems that Detroit is following me all the way to Rome!’”

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