The Vatican ambassador’s message, delivered during Monday’s gathering of U.S. bishops in Baltimore, was crystal clear: place priority on the renewal of Catholic identity in Catholic education and restore the great legacy of Jesuit institutions.

It’s an appeal that should make every Catholic parent stand up and cheer!

When Pope Francis was elected, I openly wondered whether our Jesuit pope would acknowledge the elephant in the room: the crisis of Catholic identity at many of America’s Jesuit colleges, especially the disregard for papal authority and doctrinal fidelity by some professors.

We now seem to have an answer.  While it’s not clear to what extent, if at all, Pope Francis contributed to his envoy’s message to the U.S. bishops, it’s hard to imagine that the apostolic nuncio would make such a forceful and direct appeal without the Holy Father’s consent.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò delivered an address to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that was at times both personal and emotionally stirring.  He urged attention to two concerns:

One – the need to give particular attention and care to our Catholic educational institutions so that they would regain the luster of their true identity that has shown forth from them in the past.

Two – that Catholic colleges and universities, renowned for the professional formation of their students, should be encouraged to be faithful to the title of “Catholic” that they bear. …While each college or university has its own particular mission, together they ultimately have the solemn obligation to teach the same doctrine of the universal Church and to define the moral obligations that mark us all as Catholic Christians.

This is as close as the Vatican has come to publicly confronting the crisis of Catholic identity at many American Catholic colleges. Even in elementary and secondary education, Archbishop Viganò indicated that the “true identity” of Catholic schools is not so clear today, as it once was.

Lamenting today’s “secularized and increasingly pagan civilization,” Viganò appealed for “renewed strength” in the New Evangelization—a strength that is “solid and unwavering in its commitment to Truth.”  And this strength, “which should be found in the family and in the schools, will exist only in proportion to its Catholic identity.”

He challenged the bishops to “watch over and protect families, and parishes and schools,” citing Pope St. Gregory the Great: “Imprudent silence may leave in error those who could have been taught. Pastors who lack foresight hesitate to say openly what is right because they fear losing the favor of men.”

But the most striking portion of Cardinal Viganò’s address was his reminiscence about his own years in a Jesuit secondary school and at the Gregorian University in Rome, and the heroic role of the Jesuits in bringing the Faith to the New World. It was a detour that imparted a special challenge:

No doubt that this Order has been the leader of evangelization in North America. …The Society of Jesus has had a long and proud tradition of imparting a rich Catholic faith and a deep love for Christ, which in great part is carried on through their mission of education. It is my hope that, with respect to their great tradition, after the example of our Holy Father, they would take again the lead in re-affirming the Catholic identity of their educational institutions.

The call to “take again the lead” was an acknowledgement that the Jesuits have lost their place of honor at the forefront of Catholic education. Restoring the Jesuits’ “great tradition” of education means reaffirming Catholic identity.

Cardinal Viganò’s recounting of the Church’s history in the United States, which he did at much greater length, was inspiring. He reminded the bishops that their predecessors in the early American Church had also gathered in Baltimore to decide “upon a strategy that would shape the growth and development of the Catholic Church.”

The main tool of this strategy was education, which was accomplished through the building of parishes with their own schools, together with the dedicated support of women religious. A prime example of this is St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the great pioneer of American Catholic schools.

In the Cardinal’s prepared text, the only words underlined are these: “Education was primary in the Bishops’ minds; it was an essential means for the Gospel message to be woven into the very fabric of our people’s existence. In so doing, they were following the consistent path of evangelization traced centuries before by the monastic orders” and “the Holy See.”

Today, faithful Catholic education remains essential—Pope Francis said it is “key, key, key”—to the New Evangelization. Not only our bishops, but all of our clergy, religious, educators and especially parents need to believe that. Taking up Archbishop Viganò’s timely challenge, we must make it a priority to build and support authentic, formational Catholic education that brings young people to Christ.

Our Church and society depend on it.