NEW YORK-What’s a nun? This question, recently posed by an elementary schoolgirl in rural America after she was asked if she had any interest in seeking a religious calling, is one of many signs of the troubled state of Catholic education in the United States, according to Bishop Bernard J. Harrington, chair of the education committee for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

“Catholic schools are facing a new and serious challenge,” Harrington warned more than 35 distinguished school administrators and religious leaders on Oct. 11 in the Great Hall of Duane Library on Fordham’s Rose Hill campus. “Now is the time to revisit and reaffirm our commitment.”

Bishop Harrington’s visit kicked off the “Keeping Faith With the Future” conversation series sponsored by the Fordham Center for Catholic School Leadership and the Center for Non-Public Education at Fordham’s Graduate School of Education. He highlighted key points of a recent USCCB document that urges the entire Catholic community to get involved in what the bishops describe as a critical movement to maintain and reinvigorate their schools and identity.

The National Catholic Educational Association’s annual statistical report shows that there are currently 7,799 Catholic elementary and secondary schools in the United States, enrolling more than 2.5 million students. These schools enroll more than 48 percent of all the students enrolled in private and religious schools, yet, since 1990, there has been a net decline of more than 850 Catholic schools in the country. Almost all of this loss has been in the country’s inner cities and rural areas—a trend that Harrington said was extremely troubling.

The USCCB statement cites research conducted by the United States Department of Education, the National Catholic Educational Association and other independent agencies that shows that Catholic schools play a major role in closing the achievement gap for poor and minority students in inner-city environments.

Bishop Harrington described four specific areas that need attention in order to reinvigorate Catholic education. One is the need to recognize the “changing face of the church,” which is becoming increasingly diverse. Another is to ensure that a vibrant Catholic identity is being passed on from grandparents and parents to future generations. Also, Harrington said, a major effort must be made toward securing the financial stability of the Catholic Church in the United States. Finally, he called for a push to organize and grow grassroots advocacy groups to help the cause.

“The message of this statement needs to be disseminated to the communities,” he said. “If this is not done, the purpose [of the statement]will not be accomplished.”

The “Keeping Faith With the Future” series will continue next spring, on April 29 and 30, when national leaders in Catholic education will return to Fordham to prepare a position paper and action plan to help secure the future of Catholic education. A third session is scheduled for May 31, 2006. Monsignor Francesco Follo, permanent observer of the Holy See to UNESCO, has been invited as a keynote speaker.

Founded in 1917, Fordham’s Graduate School of Education prepares teachers, administrators, counselors and psychologists through challenging academic programs that integrate theory with reflective and innovative practice. The school offers graduate programs at the University’s Bronx, Manhattan and Westchester campuses.