A Preferential Option for the Privileged

This morning nearly 100 students, parents, teachers, and friends held a silent vigil outside the Blessed Cathedral before the Chrism Mass to protest the closing of all the archdiocesan high schools in the city of Detroit.

As we marched silently in front of the newly renovated Cathedral, several questions crossed my mind.

I wondered how much the archdiocese paid for its security detail to protect our fellow Catholics from the ragged horde of students, dangerous parents, and subversive teachers who carried a picture of the Blessed Mother and signs invoking the Gospel.


I wondered whether the Cardinal might find it in his heart to donate the motorized golf carts used today to students from Southwest Detroit who will need transportation to suburban schools.

I wondered whether the Cardinal would, in the spirit of Lent, offer up a wing of his humble home for a new school.

The biggest question I had, however, was how Catholic clergy trained in the teachings of our Church could cross a picket line made up of the same children whom Jesus called to Himself.

What a message it would have sent if one priest waiting in the long procession outside the Cathedral – just ONE – had broken rank and stood with our students.

We did have priests with us, but they were the usual culprits, the same guys who waste their time running soup kitchens, fighting for workers’ rights, protesting wars and combating racism.

What a teachable moment it would have been if just a single man in his clerical garb had descended the steps of the cathedral and stood on the sidewalk in solidarity with our students.

I suppose, however, we should feel compassion for these priests, many of them good men and pastors, caught in an institutional web that works against their ability to act with integrity.

That said, courage is a virtue that is sadly lacking in many of our priests. It should be a spiritual act of mercy on the part of the laity to challenge our priests on their cowardice and to encourage them to seize the prophetic moment when it presents itself.

As for the Cardinal, he threw a feeble smile and slight wave of the hand our way before entering the Cathedral.

As we approach these holiest days of our liturgical year, we should take solace in the fact that at least now everything is on the table.

The announcement of the closures last week was so abrupt, so breathtakingly graceless, that it leaves no doubt as to where the Church stands on the issue of urban ministry.

There is no more illusion, no more euphemism, no more feigned interest. We know now for sure that golf clubs are not about to be beaten into monkey bars for our kids.

It’s not about books and diversity; it’s all about bottom lines and demographics. Quite simply, it’s about skewed priorities and a preferential option for the privileged.

The Church needs to talk to parents who have sacrificed mightily to send their children to Catholic schools. Families have forfeited large homes, vacations, saving accounts to keep their kids in our schools. And, yes, often their family finances – sometimes for years on end – are “in the red.”

As a parent pointed out at last night’s meeting, these city churches and schools were built on the backs of working-class immigrants and it is the Church’s obligation to serve as a steward of these resources.

There are worse things in life than running a deficit to keep our city schools open, schools that stand as sanctuaries of hope and empowerment for young people.

Are we going to be like the woman in the Gospel who, for love of Jesus, anoints his head with costly oil, or are we going to be like Judas, counting coins in a corner somewhere?

Perhaps the Church can follow the lead of families who have learned to live simply and do without in order to keep their kids in Catholic schools.

By turning the cross into a dollar sign, the institutional Church has taken its place at the table of the rich man while our students stand outside the gates begging for crumbs.

Sadly, our Church is operating out of a sense of scarcity, forgetting all that Jesus taught about barns and bread and birds and camels. Not to mention something he said about the necessity of becoming like little children.

There is little doubt that those of us committed to our city schools have finally reached Calvary. What the closure of our schools portends for the city of Detroit, for the entire region, is hard to fathom. The fallout from this decision is inestimable.

Yet, we are people of faith. And vision. And creativity. And resolve.

The good news is we have students and we have teachers and we have a commitment to Christ’s command to go forth and teach. We have the sacraments and we have the saints. We have more than we know.

Ultimately, this all comes down to property. I hold dear in my heart the woman who said at last night’s meeting, “I am a teacher, and if I have to I’ll teach in a tent.”

Amen, sister.

The schools that have been affected are exploring myriad ways to continue the work of educating our young people.

Some are exploring the option of consolidation. Others are discussing the idea of opening a small “home school” where students can be steeped in the rich tradition of our Catholic social teaching.

With or without the imprimatur of the institutional Church, Catholic education in Detroit is far from dead.

Our students learned a valuable lesson as they stood outside the doors of the church this morning. In a way they could never have learned in theology class, they recognized that they are the Church. They learned that when the Spirit bids them speak, they have voices that are strong and eloquent and authentic.

During this very holy week they have learned that one can pray on the street and hold school on the sidewalk. They are a testament to the value of Catholic education. They are a harbinger of hope.

During a time of crucifixion, their presence and protest is a sign of resurrection.

Holy Thursday, March 25, 2005