This week's edition of the The Evangelist celebrates Catholic education and, specifically, the mission and focus of our Catholic schools. All of the research continues to find that Catholic schools, when they are true to their mission and focus, are the best means of forming our young people in the Catholic faith.

The value of Catholic schools is not limited to faith formation, although this is the prime reason, at least historically speaking, for their existence. In the United States, these schools were established for poor immigrants in a country where Catholics did not often feel welcome.

Parishes served as islands of spiritual, economic and social stability where immigrants would be able to hear their own language, continue to follow their national customs and find social services to help them accommodate to a new life in their adopted land.

As we celebrate the history of our schools, we cannot forget that it was first and foremost religious communities, mostly of women, who set the gold standard of the mission and focus to which I refer: to teach the Catholic faith through word and example.

The focus was the whole child: body, mind and spirit. It was always a part of Catholic school culture to help children to grow not only in their faith, but also in academic excellence, good citizenship and sound socio-moral behavior.

That mission and focus have not changed. Research continues to show that Catholic schools remain outstanding in their academic excellence, in the formation of solid citizens and in the maintenance of healthy relationships among students, their families and communities. They remain a stabilizing -- I would say essential -- factor in the social fabric of our communities.

Key to the early success of our schools, it must be noted, was their strong relationships with their parishes. Most schools were also parish schools and it was the parish, first and foremost, that supported them spiritually and financially.

Over the past 50 years, we have seen many changes in our parishes, as immigrant communities have acculturated and the numbers of active parishioners and available priests and religious have shifted. Most parishes cannot afford to sustain a Catholic elementary school, even with the incredible sacrifices of tuition-paying parents.

Thus, we are engaged now in a process of realigning our schools along collaborative and more regional models and seeking alternate means of support, which will require great initiative and engagement from business, political and other professional leaders.

While we develop new ways of organizing, managing and supporting our Catholic schools, our mission and focus cannot and will not change. More than ever, it is the responsibility of every Catholic disciple of the Lord to sponsor and support this mission.

I know from my own experience that there are two essential things that I must do every day to be a disciple of Jesus: I must pray and I must tell the Good News of the Gospel. When one or both of these does not happen in my day, I cease to be a true disciple and I begin to fall apart.

If you find yourself losing focus, becoming irritable or even cynical, tending to find fault in others, falling into patterns of gossip and finger-pointing, ask yourself whether you have been taking the time to pray and to tell others of the saving love and mercy of Jesus in any given day. The Gospel and all of the spiritual guides are clear on this. We all -- not just priests and religious -- need to pray and bear witness to Jesus every day!

This is also a good test for everyone involved directly in the mission of Catholic education -- and this includes not only teachers, aides and principals, but the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of our children. We all must ask: "Has a day gone by in which I have not been praying and bringing the Gospel to others, beginning with my own family?"

Being a Christian is not primarily something that we do alone. We cannot really "keep" the faith and avoid spreading it. Though personal, quiet prayer is essential every day, we never really pray alone. We can spread the faith by going to Mass, saying a family Rosary or going to the sacrament of penance as a family.

I invite you to visit a special website just posted which has information about a wonderful, fast-track way to come closer to Jesus by making a consecration to the immaculate heart of Mary: www.rcda.org/MarianConsecration">www.rcda.org/MarianConsecration/". (Read more about this in the Bishop's accompanying pulpit letter.)

The Mass is our greatest prayer. It may not be obvious that when we stand around the priest at Mass as he says, "Through Him and with Him and in Him...," that we are surrounded by choruses of angels and saints in praising God, but that is the truth. We are never closer to heaven on earth than at Mass.

It is hard to imagine how any truly Catholic education can be effective or even be worthy of the name if our children are not participating at Mass at least every Sunday. This is the primary responsibility of all Catholic parents, whether or not they send their children to a Catholic school.

Remember, the focus of Catholic education is the whole child, not just their brain and muscle development.

"Catholic," after all, means "universal" or "total." To be any kind of a "Christian," for that matter, is to be immersed in Christ Jesus. Keeping our schools Catholic means more than teaching the principles of the Catholic faith and making sure the kids behave. It is certainly more than academic excellence or competitive advantage.

None of these should be sacrificed. But none of them will form people of faith who can transform the world with the fire of the Holy Spirit by telling everyone of God's mercy unless that faith is lived and born witness to, every day.

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter@AlbBishopEd.)