An Interview with Steve Virgadamo

by Gordon Nary

Gordon: When were you appointed to Associate Superintendent for Leadership at the Archdiocese of New York and what are your primary responsibilities?


Steve: In 2014, I was working at the University of Notre Dame as a Director in the Alliance for Catholic Education Program and I accepted an invitation to come to the Archdiocese of New York to take responsibility for the Leadership Formation of Catholic School leaders. The Archdiocese of New York was already engaged in reimaging Catholic education via new governance and finance structures. Much of the focus had been on restructuring and regionalization of schools. Structure is important, but the real key to success is transforming the culture – changing the way we do things. So the key ingredient to re-imagining Catholic schools is re-culturing. Re-culturing involves constant attention and focus of the key executive leaders as it takes time and energy. This is perhaps why those who staff the Catholic education offices across the country and those who serve as school leaders in a Catholic school building need to lead with purpose, an intensity, enthusiasm, hope, a missionary zeal and always be growth minded. I readily accepted the invitation as Catholic school improvement efforts rely heavily on Leadership. In my 30 plus years of partnering with Catholic schools I can say with certainty that the difference between a good Catholic school and a great one is the school leader.Great Catholic school leaders – serve first – build trust and always, always bear witness to their values. Successful Catholic school leaders must be great communicators and focused on building a culture which will have a positive impact on student learning, achievement and Faith formation. The best Catholic school leaders manage by walking around as they get to know the students by name and by observation identify areas where teachers can improve. Most importantly, Catholic school leaders are filled with a missionary zeal and are unwilling to give up on a young scholar. The very best Catholic school leaders are the epitome of pastoral and instructional leadership.


And of all of the things I have done in my career in serving the Church, I know this will be one of the most rewarding as my work in the Archdiocese of New York is the formation of the next generation of Catholic School Leaders.


To paraphrase John Kennedy’s inaugural address : Let it be known to all friends and foe alike that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Catholic school leaders, born in the latter half of the last century, educated in a post Vatican II Church, hardened by scandal and committed to serving Christ and His Church.


Gordon: When did you receive the National Catholic Education Association President's award and named one of the most influential people in Catholic Education, and what was the response by the Archdiocese of New York and your family?


Steve: I was blessed to receive the award in April 2018. I was honored, but also humbled. My colleagues at the Archdiocese of New York, as well as Pastors, school leaders with whom I worked in over 6,000 Catholic schools were so supportive and filed my inbox with congratulatory notes and stories of how our encounters had impacted their lives and ministries. My parents probably wanted to take credit for the award, as in an effort to nurture me in my Faith; they enrolled me in a Catholic school. That decision was a precursor to my future, as I spent so much time in the principal’s office that by the time I graduated and they handed me the diploma, I had the equivalent of a Masters degree in Catholic School Administration. The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur taught me how to run a successful Catholic school.


My favorite Gospel message is the Transfiguration. Jesus reveals himself to the Apostles and each wants to just stay on that mountain with him, but he says …oh no boys back down that hill there is more work to be done. So while the President’s award was for a lifetime of achievement…I know there is still much more work to do to renew the face of Catholic education.


Gordon: What are the challenges for Catholic Education in the United States?


Steve: The present down-turn in the world economy has impacted enrollment in Catholic schools. Not just families, but parishes and diocese across the country no longer have the resources to keep every Catholic school open. When the number of Catholic schools peaked in 1965, there were 6,046,854 students enrolled in 13,700 schools. Since then just about half of all Catholic schools have closed in the United States. But the role of the Catholic school remains just as valuable today as in the past.

Catholic schools are not simply alternatives to public schools or private schools. They have their own distinctive ethos. The Catholic school pursues truth in all academic disciplines within the context of the Faith. With an Incarnate view of the world, there are no secular subjects. “Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom” (Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Catholic Educators, Washington, D.C. April 17, 2008). By their very existence, Catholic schools proclaim the enriching power of the faith as the answer to the many challenges that face us.


Catholic school alumni have the tools to, bridge the growing gap between culture and religion, reason and faith, life and morality. This is why Catholic education must continue to play a vital role in preparing students for lives of leadership. To form our young intellectually, morally and spiritually as Catholic is not a secondary work of the Church. It is part of the Church’s essential mission. Hence, the importance of the Catholic school. To say it another way, the Church has a mission and therefore we have Catholic schools.

Recent research has indicated that the second largest group identifying themselves with any religion classify themselves as “fallen away Catholics”. Many of these fallen away Catholics are choosing to enroll their children in a Catholic school for the rigor of the academic program and the differentiation of instruction. When this occurs our Catholic school leaders have an opportunity to light what I refer to as the re-evangelization lamp. Just as we built our church with Catholic education in the 1800’s with Catholic education, today we have an opportunity once again to rebuild it via our schools.


Despite the financial challenges facing Catholic schools and the great efforts to keep as many as possible open, the question is not whether Catholic education is worthwhile for our church and society. Studies have shown that young Catholic parents today are much closer in their belief to Catholics prior to the Second Vatican Council than they are to generation after the Council. They want Catholic schools. The question is not whether or not they can afford a Catholic education. The deeper question is whether we as a Church and as society can afford not to give a Catholic education to all our young whose families desire it for their children.


Other studies have shown that our Catholic schools serve the urban poor and minorities better than any other education option. More and more large numbers of non Catholic families particularly in large metropolitan areas desire a Catholic school option for their children. Catholic schools serve all hungry for an education and enroll non Catholic families because we are Catholic. Fundamentally, I believe that parents are the primary educators of their children. It should be the birthright of every family to choose the best education for their children regardless of their ability to afford a residence in an affluent zip code with top performing schools. School choice for parents in my mind is a civil rights issue. And if parents choose to exercise their civil right by choosing a faith based school for their child, then so be it. Should that be an education in the faith, then so be it. So, as a Church we must double down our efforts to introduce school choice legislation in every municipality.


Lastly I must add I grieve school closings for the human cost. With each lost school I see the faces of hundreds of young scholars who are denied an opportunity to encounter the Risen Christ.


Gordon: Pope Francis was a teacher. What impact has the current Papacy had on Catholic Education?


Steve: As Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis said:


­“The education of children and young people is such an important task in forming them as free and responsible human beings. It affirms their dignity as an inalienable gift that flow from our original creation as children made in the image and likeness of God. And because education truly forms human beings, it is especially the duty and responsibility of the Church, who is called to serve mankind from the heart of God and in such a way that no other institution can.”


Early in his Papacy, Pope Francis addressed Catholic school teachers and administrators. He said:

“In a society that struggles to find points of reference, young people need a positive reference point in their school. The school can be this or become this only if it has teachers capable of giving meaning to school, to studies and to culture, without reducing everything to the mere transmission of technical knowledge. Instead they must aim to build an educational relationship with each student, who must feel accepted and loved for who he or she is, with all of his or her limitations and potential. In this direction, your task is more necessary now than ever. You must not only teach content, but the values and customs of life.”


Later in his Papacy when addressing the members of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, the Vatican Office which oversees church affiliated schools and colleges around the world, he said: Catholic schools and universities play a key role in evangelization and in creating a more humane world built on dialogue and hope. Future generations who are “educated in a Christian way for dialogue, will come out of the classroom motivated to build bridges and, therefore, to find new answers to the many challenges Catholic schools should serve the church’s mission of helping humanity grow, build a culture of dialogue and plant the seeds of hope. Educators are just like mothers and fathers who give life open to the future.”


Before his visit to NYC, Cardinal Dolan asked Pope Francis what he wanted to see and he replied one of those great Catholic schools that has contributed to building the Church in America. In the same day, he walked the hall of the United Nations, the Halls of Congress and the hallowed halls of a Catholic school.


Gordon: Thank you for a great interview.


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