On Saturday evening, January 28, 2017, we hosted Most Reverend William Lori, Archbishop of Baltimore, for the Red Mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling. This annual Mass is a wonderful moment of prayer for our lawyers, judges, and legislators, as well as many civil servants. It is also a time to give thanks to God and to each of them for the important work they do on behalf of so many and for the common good. Archbishop Lori, who is also a Metropolitan—the head of the Ecclesiastic Province to which Wheeling-Charleston belongs—gave a very well prepared homily on the challenges those officials and all of us as Christians face while in contemporary society and the questions we all must address and respond to in a conscientious manner.
It was a special treat for me to have Archbishop Lori visit, and not merely because he is our Metropolitan. The Archbishop has been a good friend for many years, since I first went to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, where he was a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington and later its Vicar General. I enjoyed showing him some of the changes since his last visit to Wheeling, several years ago.
Following the Red Mass, there was a reception where many of our guests were able to meet and talk to the Archbishop. He enjoyed going from table to table at the reception and meeting so many of the invited guests from the legal and judicial community and they enjoyed talking with him. It was a pleasure to see the faces of so many light up as the Archbishop approached them for conversation. The next day it was televised as our Sunday Mass in the Northern Panhandle. I am truly grateful to all those who work so hard in our Diocese to make events like this possible.
A large group attended the Red Mass from the Bishop Donahue High School community, joining in prayer for their school community. Earlier in the month, Bishop Donahue High School was informed that its 62-year mission of education would be coming to an end this June 2017. I know that this was sad news for students and their families, alumni, faculty and staff, and members of the broader community. The love these students and their families have for the school is evident to see, especially as they gathered, dressed in the School’s green and gold, to show their support.
In many ways, the challenges that have faced Bishop Donahue High School in recent years are the same that have affected communities across our Mountain State, especially those up and down the Ohio Valley and throughout the southern coalfields: there have been serious demographic changes in many parts of West Virginia, resulting in decline in overall population and especially in the number of families with school-aged children. Where once there was steel and coal to drive local economies, there is no way near the jobs to support the population levels that existed when Bishop Donahue High School was established in 1955. Public school systems throughout the State have had to go through consolidations in order to control costs and to provide a quality education for the students. In the counties from which Bishop Donahue draws, the public schools consolidated many years ago, while the Diocese and Bishop Donahue held on for a long period of time. This was made possible by financial support from the Diocese in a number of ways; indeed, the Diocese provides support for many schools and parishes throughout the State of West Virginia, as part of its mission.
But the financial commitment was only part of the decision: there is the question of providing a quality education for our students. In the case of Bishop Donahue High School, we all clearly saw that students and their families have received a beautiful Catholic education and formation, as they gathered prayerfully at the Mass. I was happy to welcome them to their Cathedral and I was proud of their respectful behavior and beautiful devotion to their school. But with only 15 students in this year’s freshman class and prospect looking no better despite their best efforts in recent years, unification of the two Catholic High Schools located only a few miles apart became the best possible decision for all involved. In many ways, a number of our parishes and missions are prayerfully considering the same issues, as part of the Joining Our Neighbors Process which is currently underway. Some of you may be surprised to know that the Diocese currently staffs parishes and missions where under 25 people gather for Mass on Sundays; indeed, there are many parishes and missions where less than 100 individuals attend Mass each Sunday. As in our schools, so too in our parishes changing times and demographics have left us with difficult challenges. What we can preserve and enhance, we will; however, there are real limits which are becoming more evident to all of us each day.
I hope that everyone can realize how difficult the decision to unify Bishop Donahue High School with Central Catholic High School has been for me as a Bishop and how many years I have postponed this decision, waiting for a change in this situation. The last thing I want to do as a Bishop is to actually close a Catholic School. I have never closed a diocesan high school and if I had the hope of a significant change in the near future, I would not have done it. I have tried to avoid this moment for several years, but I have become convinced that to do so longer would hurt the education of these young people.
I ask for your prayers as we pass through these very difficult challenges in Catholic education and in our parish communities. We are a diocese that has always been very generous to all levels of Catholic education but our Catholic population and the State’s overall population is changing. Responsible decisions must be made to respond to these challenges and shortages. It is sad because of the great love people have for our schools and parishes. Across our country and in many dioceses, my brother Bishops are facing the same reality. As a Diocese, we have been fortunate enough to be able to delay decisions like this one for several years; sadly, we cannot delay any longer. Please pray for everyone involved in these decisions: pray for students, families, and parishioners that they might understand the realities of this time and place and pray for me as I persevere and strive to find the answers to these situations that will benefit the whole Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. Most of all, please pray for an increase in vocations to priesthood and a religious life and a spirit of generous support for the Diocese’s education and charitable missions. There are truly great needs among our people, and I know that there are many good people in our parishes willing to help.