As part of a "major initiative" to revitalize Catholic identity and practice in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Cardinal Justin Rigali has appointed a "blue ribbon" panel to explore ways to enhance the region's Catholic schools.

In a challenge facing many other dioceses, the archbishop told a news conference Tuesday, the schools in his five-county archdiocese are at a "crossroads" due to "changing demographics, declining enrollment, and a struggle to keep [education] affordable."

Comprised of 17 business leaders and educators, the panel is charged with developing a plan "to assure the sustainability of Catholic education" that takes into account "demographics, staffing, facilities and financing." Its report is expected in September.

The archdiocesan school system currently educates 67,000 youngsters at 167 parish schools, 17 high schools, and four special education schools.

At its peak in 1965, enrollment numbered 265,000.

The archdiocese has made several attempts in recent years to promote Catholic schools, including a $500,000 marketing campaign in 2007 called "Keeping Faith in Mind" that touted the quality of its education and values.

Despite these and private efforts to fund tuition scholarships, enrollment has declined by about 25 percent in the past decade, with the largest drop in inner-city parishes, many of whose pupils are not Catholic.

Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, who oversees the archdiocese's Office for Catholic Education, said the study had no hidden agenda to close struggling schools, although its findings would likely include criteria for determining which schools should stay open.

He also said the archdiocese remains committed to serving the poor of all faiths.

The cardinal named John "Jack" Quindlen, a retired senior vice-president of the Dupont Corp. and formerly its chief financial officer, to chair the committee.

"This will be a strategic view," Quindlen said. "Assets, buildings, finances, education, logistics. We're going to look at everything.

"The cardinal has handed us the ball," he added, "but has not told us how to go about" the task.

The committee, 12 of whose members were introduced at the news conference, includes several prominent business leaders. Among them is H. Edward Hanway, chairman emeritus of the CIGNA Corp., and Thomas J. Colligan, a vice-dean at the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania and former vice-chair of the management consulting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers, L.L.C.

It also numbers four priests and four religious sisters, including Sister Patricia Fadden, president of Immaculata University, and the Rev. Joseph O'Keefe, dean of the school of education at Boston College.

Committee members are scheduled to convene for the first time on Jan. 5, the Feast Day of St. John Neumann, fourth bishop of Philadelphia and founder of its Catholic school system. Later in the year, the archdiocese will observe the birth of Neumann. Since the 1850s, the archdiocese has educated more than 15 million youngsters, according to the cardinal.

Rigali closed the news conference by saying he was "very optimistic" about the future of Catholic education in the archdiocese.

The schools panel is one piece of what he is calling a "major initiative" to revitalize Catholic faith across the archdiocese, where fewer than 30 percent of Catholics regularly attend Sunday Mass.

Despite overall population growth in the five counties comprising the archdiocese, the number of Catholics has declined from 1.46 million to 1.31 million since 2008.

Titled "Called to Conversion and Holiness," the initiative's seven goals include three "superpriorities," which Rigali has identified as greater Mass attendance, personal confession, and prayers for vocations to priesthood.

In addition to these three features and the schools study, the program calls on each parish to engage in a systematic self-study over the next 18 months, identifying ways to better engage and serve active members and attract marginal Catholics.

Rigali, who declined to be interviewed by The Inquirer about the initiative, unveiled it in a pastoral letter that he sent to the archdiocese's 268 parishes last month.

"Strengthening the faith of the people - that's the central idea," Monsignor Arthur E. Rodgers, coordinator of the initiative, said in a recent interview.

Additionally, Rigali is calling on the faithful to commit to financial stewardship and reach out to "the poor, the marginalized, and all ... who have set aside the practice of their faith."

The archbishop has also asked his four auxiliary bishops to come up with a plan by July for restructuring the archdiocese's many offices and secretariats, which the four oversee.

Rodgers said that while outreach, stewardship, schools, parish life and diocesan offices are important, they are not ends in themselves. By improving them, the archdiocese is seeking to enhance the sacramental life of its Catholics, he said, and bring them closer to Christ.

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com