Educators, administrators and no less than four bishops gathered to celebrate Catholic education on Jan. 29. Now called GALA 22:6, the 15th annual dinner to support Catholic education was held at the Buffalo/Niagara Convention Center.
Archbishop Wilton Gregory from the Diocese of Atlanta, delivered a keynote address that spoke of the benefits his diocese has seen from education tax credits. New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed a $100 million Education Tax credit for public and private scholarships to promote choice in education.
He began his speech by talking about his own experiences with Catholic education. Although not Catholic, Archbishop Gregory attended St. Carthage School in Chicago as an African-American living in the throes of rapid neighborhood racial change. It was through the kindness and good example of the sisters and priests he met at school that Gregory became a Catholic. Later he became a priest, bishop and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"My life is a testimony to the contributions of our Catholic schools to the lives of a great many people," he said.
Because of that testimony, he wants Catholic schools to be "available, accessible and affordable" to all students Catholic or not.
"Catholic schools have never been the enemy of public schools, and they are not today despite some of the hostile opposition that we encounter when seeking the rights of parents to choose them, and to seek the professional or financial assistance that belongs to them as parents and as equal members of society, whose taxes apply to the common good of every community," he said to a round of applause.
"In truth, we Catholics have a vested interest in the advancement and success of public schools, since the vast majority of Catholic students attend these various institutions. The citizens of New York then, rightfully, should now rejoice in the tax credit initiative that has recently taken a positive advancement in Albany, as these resulting funds and services will be of invaluable assistance to the parents of Catholic school students and to parents of students of other schools in the education of your children," he continued.
Georgia has seen the benefits from a similar tax credit initiative for the past seven years. The state now has 1,000 economically disadvantaged students in Catholic schools.
Archbishop Gregory encouraged all to support the New York tax credit initiative, to inform themselves on details, to encourage elected officials to support it, and to pray for its success. "It is part of the mission of Catholic schools everywhere to serve those who live on the margins of society," he said.
Atlanta has a growing Catholic population and has opened eight new schools in recent years.
The archbishop praised Buffalo's STREAM program for being an innovative and effective way for administrators and teachers to access such training programs, saying it brings "new energy" to the art of teaching.
"I applaud the Diocese of Buffalo for the developmental plan to preserve, strengthen and enhance your own Catholic schools in your Faith in Tomorrow initiative," he said. "It is just those sorts of efforts the Church in this nation needs to pursue, to open a future for Catholic education that reflects the realities of today and faith aspirations of tomorrow."
The archbishop also spoke on the relationship between Catholic education, parishes and the faith in general, saying that the decrease of Catholics practicing their faith negatively impacts the number of children receiving religious education in both schools and parish catechetical programs.
"We all know that parents want to see their children have more of the things they did not have," he said. "It is critical that we mobilize our efforts and devise ways in which we can assist parents in passing down our most important treasure to our children, that is our Catholic faith. That is the desire and, indeed, the very theme of this evening's GALA."
Bishops are convinced that Catholic elementary and secondary schools play a critical role in the Church's future. The Church has a duty to model the very person of Jesus Christ, to teach the Gospel, and to evangelize our culture. "Thus it follows that the work of the school is irreplaceable and the investment of human and material resources in the school becomes a prophetic choice," Bishop Gregory said.
Reading from St. John Paul II's apostolic exhortation "Ecclesia in America," Archbishop Gregory said, "It is essential that every possible effort be made to ensure that Catholic schools, despite financial difficulties, continue to provide Catholic education to the poor and marginalized in society. It will never be possible to free the needy from their poverty unless they are first freed from the impoverishment arising from the lack of adequate education."
He closed his speech by promising to pray for the diocese.
"Don't be too gloomy about the future," he said. "Walk forward with faith and courage because you are all part of a great ministry. Our Catholic schools do wonderful things for our young people."
The night also saw the recognition of educators and supporters through a series of annual awards. Kindergarten teacher Linda A. Calandrelli received the Sister Lucille Socciarelli/Father John Sturm Making a Difference Award, for her work at St. Peter School in Lewiston.
Bishops Medal of Honor awardees include: Sister Gail Glenn, principal of Catholic Academy of West Buffalo; Canisius College; Christ the King Seminary; D'Youville College; Hilbert College; Niagara University; St. Bonaventure University; Trocaire College and Villa Maria College.
The Outstanding Achievement Award was presented to Msgr. Kevin O'Neill, administrator of St. John XXIII Parish in West Seneca.
The GALA 22:6 is the diocese's largest fundraiser for Catholic education. Proceeds will be used to fund needs-based tuition assistance for students attending Catholic elementary schools in the eight-county diocese.
For the 2014-2015 school year, nearly 1,730 students will attend Catholic schools through this diocesan scholarship. The average grant is $1,100. The dinner raises 35 percent of these funds.
Formerly known as the "Making a Difference Dinner," GALA 22:6 takes its name from Proverbs 22:6. "Train up children in a way they should go, and when they are old, they will not depart from it."