(OSV News) – As they open their doors for a new academic year, the nation’s Catholic schools are enjoying overall strong growth, along with a firm commitment to mission, experts told OSV News.

“Our school system has grown two years in a row,” said Lincoln Snyder, president and CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association.

Students at Saint Jude School in Mountain Top participate in daily prayer.

Based in Leesburg, Virginia, the NCEA, an organization which traces its origins to a 1904 conference held in St. Louis, represents close to 140,000 Catholic educators serving 1.6 million students.

Snyder told OSV News that Catholic schools in the U.S. on balance experienced a bump in enrollment amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a 3.8% growth from 2021-2022 and 0.3% growth during the 2022-2023 year.

In addition, “most retention rates are pretty high,” said Snyder. “Dioceses last year retained 93% to 98% of students who came (during) COVID.”

The Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, for example, has seen a three-year rise in enrollment, with the overall student population – now at 18,400 in 41 diocesan schools – up 10% since the 2020-2021 academic year.

Snyder attributed such sustained growth to factors that transcended the pandemic.

“By all indications, families who came to Catholic schools were very happy with the community and they established relationships” with the schools, he said. “Once people have children in a positive environment, they tend not to change it.”

At the same time, some Catholic schools saw an uptick in numbers due to straightforward demographic shifts, he said.

While declines “tended to be in the Northeast and the Midwest … most of our growth was seen in southeastern Florida, and some in the (U.S.) Southwest,” said Snyder.

“We’ve recovered from the pandemic and then some,” said Jim Rigg, superintendent of Catholic schools and secretary of education for the Archdiocese of Miami. “We have the highest enrollment in eight years, up about 3.6% year over year.”

One formerly closed school – St. Malachy in Tamarac, Florida – has even reopened for the 2023-2024 academic year after a 14-year hiatus, he said.

Rigg cited an influx of new Florida residents as one factor in enrollment surges. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Florida is the nation’s third most populous state, as well as the fastest-growing one.

“Substantial numbers of people move here from the northern U.S., and we have continuous waves of immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean, the majority of whom identify as Catholic,” he told OSV News.

Christopher Pastura, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida, agreed. He said Florida’s “robust school choice programs” also have worked to fill classrooms.

“Florida has moved to a 100% choice scholarship program, so everybody has access to that regardless of income,” Pastura told OSV News. “It’s helped our low- and middle-income folks be able to afford a Catholic school education.”

Making Catholic education accessible to students with disabilities also is key, said Andrew McLaughlin, secretary for elementary education at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

“We are really pushing for full inclusion for children with disabilities, rather than have separate schools for them,” said McLaughlin, whose schools have seen strong growth and — in contrast to national trends — little learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic, as evidenced by standardized testing.

“Ensuring every school can support students with identified special needs is a vital part of our Catholic mission, to serve all who wish to come to our schools,” said Rigg.

Along with expanding access, school administrators with whom OSV News spoke are focused on addressing both mental health and school security concerns.

While their students are not immune from national increases in mental health challenges — a trend highlighted by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in a 2021 advisory — Catholic schools, equipped with psychological and spiritual resources, can provide a strongly supportive environment for students and families navigating such issues.

“Often we hear families say, ‘Thank God this happened in a Catholic school, because there is a community of care,'” said Rigg. “(The) community will rally around a family in crisis.”

School security also is a priority for Rigg, given the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17.

“That weighs heavily on the psyche of everyone in South Florida,” said Rigg, whose safety investments include on-site police officers, cameras and enhanced standards for ensuring campus doors are locked appropriately.

But the biggest draw at many schools is the fundamental nature of Catholic education itself, said experts.

“When you create the type of Catholic culture that people want to be part of, you don’t have to worry about enrollment,” said Kevin Ferdinandt, headmaster of St. Agnes School in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The preK-12 school draws students from dozens of area ZIP codes, drawing from “a really broad area” and functioning “a lot like a regional school,” he told OSV News.

Admitting that St. Agnes had “almost closed in 2007” due to financial struggles, Ferdinandt said the school revisited its roots — and bore fruit as a result.

“We’ve got a very clear mission, and we serve Catholic families that are really serious about engaging their kids in education, and making sure their kids get a chance to learn what we as Catholics really believe,” he said. “If we’re going to call ourselves a Catholic school and not be serious about teaching the faith … then we’re just private schools with a religion department. We worked hard for a lot of years to establish an extraordinary student and faculty culture (of Catholic education), and with that came the success of our school.”

“Our first role as Catholic schools is forming disciples,” said Snyder. “We are a ministry of the church, and we want to form children who love Jesus Christ.”

(OSV News) – Suicide, it is sometimes said, is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But for at least 49,449 Americans during 2022, feelings of distress were so acute they took their own lives.

As CNN recently reported with the release of provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “the suicide rate spiked in 2021, reversing two years of decline. And with the continued increase in 2022, rates surpassed the previous record from 2018.”

A suicide prevention sign is pictured on a protective fence on the walkway of the George Washington Bridge between in New York City Jan. 12, 2022. The U.S. is not facing a “suicide epidemic,” as some might term it, but a recent spike in the suicide rate after a decrease for a number of years is alarming and “cause for concern,” say experts. (OSV News photo/Mike Segar, Reuters)

According to the CDC, suicide rates rose 37% between 2000-2018 and decreased 5% between 2018-2020. However, rates nearly returned to their peak in 2021.

“There is no suicide epidemic, as that term is used within epidemiology,” explained David Jobes, a psychology professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, and director of its Suicide Prevention Lab. “Cause for concern? To be sure!”

A story more frequently overlooked, Jobes thinks, is the high number of those who contemplate suicide. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that 2021 survey data indicates for every individual suicide death, about 265 people seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months.

“If we were better at identifying people with serious ideation and treating them upstream,” said Jobes, “we’d have fewer of them going on to attempt and die by suicide.”

Suicide risk factors cited by the CDC include “racism and discrimination in our society, economic hardship, poverty, limited affordable housing, lack of educational opportunities, and barriers to physical and mental health care access.”

Other factors, the CDC adds, are “relationship problems or feeling a lack of connectedness to others, easy access to lethal means among people at risk, experiences of violence such as child abuse and neglect, adverse childhood experiences, bullying, and serious health conditions.”

Deacon Ed Shoener, president of the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, said he wasn’t surprised by the latest CDC figures.

“There’s a misperception out there that people have a rational choice — like Hamlet, ‘To be, or not to be,'” said Deacon Shoener. “Shakespeare used suicide as a plot twist quite often — suggesting that it’s some sort of rational thing. There’s nothing rational about suicide.”

Public attention, emphasized Deacon Shoener, is critical.

“We haven’t placed enough resources into understanding the psychology of suicide — and the mental health issues that go along with it — to be able to get these rates back down,” he said.

“No one wants to die by suicide. I’ve talked to a number of people that have survived the attempt, and they all say — once they’re mentally and psychologically stable — ‘Thank God I didn’t die; I didn’t want to do this,'” Deacon Shoener recalled. “But somehow, their brain gets them to the point where they think it’s the best thing to do — in fact, they think it’s the only thing to do.”

For Deacon Shoener, the pain is personal. In 2016, he lost his own daughter, Katie, to suicide. “This life is not for me,” she wrote in a final note, before turning a gun on herself.

His loss launched Deacon Shoener on a ministry of mental health accompaniment — and his cumulative experience equipped him to suggest ways the Catholic Church can do the same.

Deacon Shoener and Phoenix Bishop John P. Dolan are co-editors of “When a Loved One Dies by Suicide” and its complementary film series, “Responding to Suicide: A Pastoral Handbook for Catholic Leaders” (Ave Maria Press).

“The church’s role in mental health, mental illness and even suicidality, is to reassure people Christ is with them in the midst of their struggles,” Deacon Shoener said. “Just like when someone’s living with cancer, or multiple sclerosis, we can’t make these physical illnesses go away. But what we can do is reassure people Christ is with them; that he understands their suffering.”

And the church can help dissolve the sting of stigma.

“The church can guide people, and reassure them it is a gift from God to go get mental healthcare. You’re not a bad Catholic if you go see a therapist or a counselor, or take psychiatric drugs,” Deacon Shoener stressed. “That’s a gift from God, too.”

Like Deacon Shoener, Marian Father Chris Alar, a provincial superior of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, has known the shock of a loved one suddenly taking their life.

“Using a small handgun that was kept in the house for protection, my grandmother shot herself in the bathroom and lay in a pool of blood for what authorities estimated to have been about two hours,” Father Alar wrote in the book he co-wrote with fellow Marian Father Jason Lewis, “After Suicide: There’s Hope for Them and You” (Marian Press).

“The main reason Father Jason Lewis and I wrote the book was to educate and provide a pastoral aid for people who were despairing of their lost loved ones because they had always learned if you take your own life, you are automatically damned to hell,” Father Alar shared. “That is not church teaching — surprising to some — because the only way we lose our soul is to die in an unrepentant state of mortal sin.”

The Catholic Church teaches that for a sin to be mortal, three conditions must be present: grave matter; knowledge that an act is a sin; and free will.

While Father Alar is convinced most people know suicide is both a grave matter and a sin, “it is the third condition we have to look at — you must have complete free will, and want to choose it. Now my grandmother, in taking her life, I know for a fact did not have free will,” he reflected. “She didn’t want to take her life. She was struggling for years with the most intense pain and suffering that she fought, and fought, and fought. And I know God knows she tried to fight the pain and the suffering. She just couldn’t take it anymore.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of. … We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.”

Father Alar stressed God’s compassion is not a basis for presumption. Suicide, he emphasized, is “a very serious sin. It’s never the answer; we can never justify it. But we can have hope in the mercy of God that there is a way for them to still be saved.”

He also agrees with Deacon Shoener that more needs to be done.

“The church is finally learning mental health is a major influence on our spiritual life,” Father Alar observed. “We need to talk to our pastors…We need our people to go to their bishops and dioceses, and request support services for the grieving and for mental health,” said Father Alar. “This is something people need to ask their bishops for.”

Sister Kathryn J. Hermes — a Pauline nun and author of “Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach” (Pauline Books & Media) — suggests that an immersive homiletic practicum for seminarians could help them realize the impact of their words upon those struggling with mental illness.

“You give a homily,” she imagined, “and in your assembly is someone who’s suicidal; someone who’s manic depressive; someone who’s been abused — a variety of individuals who represent the people you will have in your parish one day. And after you give your homily, you sit down and hear from each one of those people what they heard,” said Sister Hermes. “How do you hold together the truth, and the pastoral reality?”

The goal, said Sister Hermes, isn’t for everyone to become a therapist, but to realize the impact language and actions can have for those struggling with mental health issues.

“Does the parish even see them?” Sister Hermes asked. “People are putting on their Sunday clothes and going to Mass, and they’ve got it together for the time they’re in public — but has anyone touched the depth of the pain? They don’t even realize how much this is needed.”