In his countless visits with Catholic school students during school-wide liturgies and visits to their classrooms, Bishop Ronald Gainer always seemed to assign homework to the students. From pre-kindergarteners to high school seniors and everyone in between, the students all received the same assignment:
“When you go home, tell your parents that Bishop Gainer says thank you for choosing a Catholic school for your education and formation. Your parents have made the very best choice for you by sending you here.”
The “assignment” often elicited a round of giggles from younger students, delighted that the bishop hadn’t given them another chapter to read or writing prompt to complete. But his request of them was genuine, as he championed the importance of Catholic schools in forming the mind, body and Spirit of young people.
Whether filling his role as Chief Teacher by educating students through his homilies, encouraging high school students to deepen their faith during annual visits, opening a book to entertain elementary students during a virtual “Read Across America Day,” or congratulating students during luncheons celebrating their academic and athletic success, Bishop Gainer celebrated students in his support of the schools.
“His welcome-back messages to students at the start of the year, reading a book to the kids for ‘Read Across America Day,’ and his school visits – these are really special times for the students,” said Jeff Hughes, principal of Resurrection Catholic School in Lancaster. “He came for the Mass to celebrate our 30th anniversary, and you could see how committed he is to the children we serve and to our Catholic schools. It’s inspiring.”
He also extolled the dedication and ministry of school personnel, reminding them of their vocation and challenging them to new heights during annual conferences.
“Bishop Gainer’s support has been instrumental in the success of our schools. He has generously provided a ‘ministry of presence,’ showing his support just through his willingness to visit a school for a school day, to say Mass for the community, or to attend a special event,” said Daniel Breen, Diocesan Secretary for Education. “Bishop always wanted to know if students or principals were in the Diocesan Center so he could greet them. Moreover, he was a great supporter of our efforts in the Secretariat for Education.”
Thanks to the bishop’s leadership, the Diocesan Office of Catholic Education announced in May of 2022 a strategic vision process – “Christ Before Me: A Strategic Vision for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Harrisburg” – to guide Catholic schools toward sustained success.
“While grateful for our history and current success, we believe that Catholic education now is as important as it ever has been, and we feel the urgent need to chart a pathway for the future,” Bishop Gainer said in announcing the strategic vision, which focuses on discipleship, innovation, collaboration, support and engagement.
“The vision for Catholic education in the Diocese of Harrisburg moving forward is one that everyone is aware of and can work toward as we all look at the health of the schools – with regard to finance, enrollment, infrastructure. That gives us a good look at the health of each of our schools and helps us focus on where we need to make improvements,” Hughes remarked. “We are all Catholic schools in the Diocese with a mission to educate children, so having that consistent focus and vision is exceptionally important, and I’m grateful for the bishop’s leadership in that area.”
Six months after the announcement of the strategic vision, Catholic schools marked another monumental accomplishment: $1 million in scholarship monies through the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC program).
“Our goal in the Diocese of Harrisburg is to make Catholic education not just accessible, but also affordable for every family who wishes it. This is a step in achieving this goal,” Bishop Gainer said, expressing his gratitude to pastors, principals, teachers, staff and families in the Diocese’s 35 schools.
The announcement came on the heels of another increase in student enrollment – a 6% jump thanks in no small part to the schools’ efforts to remain open for in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Prior to COVID, we had a strong academic record. Because our schools quickly transitioned to online learning over the course of a weekend in 2020 and then reopened and provided a safe, in-person learning environment for the 2020-2021 school year, our students have continued to excel. Our Catholic schools, like so many others in our country, went above and beyond to give our students a safe, faith-filled, enriching learning environment. The results from our latest achievement assessments show that these efforts have been successful,” he said of the enrollment increase.
Katie Seufert, principal of York Catholic Middle and High School, said the leadership of Bishop Gainer – and that of the staff in the Office of Catholic Education – have greatly positioned the Catholic schools in the Diocese for continued success.
“That department has seen a pretty significant restructure under Bishop’s leadership, and the national resources that have become available to us for professional development, funding and finding good collaboration and partners has been realized as a result of his leadership and willingness to support the leadership in the Office of Catholic Education,” she said.
“I am extremely grateful for Bishop Gainer’s leadership in the Diocese,” Seufert said. “We see it in concrete ways – in his making a point to spend a day with each class of seniors in the high schools, in the number of RCIA candidates coming from our schools, and an uptick in the number of students considering religious life.”
“All those speak dividends to his support of Catholic education and to his influence,” she said. “He has never waivered in his leadership, and continued to support our schools and making Catholic education a priority.”
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness