St John the Evangelist Parish Church, Dapto (Wednesday, 16 May) &
Mary Immaculate Parish Church, Eagle Vale (Thursday, 17 May)
There is an old adage that when you open a school, you close a prison!
Catholic Education plays a major role in the schooling of our country. The statistics tell us, of every Australian child at school, one in five is in a Catholic school. Therefore, what happens in Catholic education is of significance for our nation, granted the size of the investment the Church and Federal and State Governments and families have made in Catholic schooling.
For those regimes hostile to the Church, usually all that has been necessary to harm the Church significantly has been simply to close the Catholic parishes and schools.
In the context of the significance of our Catholic schools to the Church in Australia, at Pentecost (27 May) this year we will see the formal commencement of what we, bishops, have called “A Year of Grace.” Faced with the huge challenges to the Church in Australia in these present times, ranging from the obvious and significant sadness of the disengagement of so many of the young with the Church in its worshipping communities, both at school and when they have left school, to the disillusionment and almost despair caused by the steady revelations of abuse in the Church, to the inroads of atheistic and secular influences in our society that run counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to the aging of our congregations and the fall in the number entering the priesthood and religious life, “A Year of Grace” is a call to put our Church on a spiritual retreat from Pentecost this year until Pentecost next year, so as to urge us always to turn back in our questions to the principal question “what does what we are doing have to do with Christ Jesus?” We, bishops, believe this must be the basic approach for the Church addressing the issues facing it – we have first of all to return to the very basis of our meaning as a Christian community, reflecting, contemplating and addressing seriously in our lives who is the person of Jesus for you and for me.
Why are we doing what we are doing? That is the challenge facing all our operations as a Church, in our parishes, in our Catholic schools, in government schools, in our Catholic welfare and works of mercy, in our health and aged care and in all our ministries. Our Year of Grace is asking us and challenging us to keep coming back all the time, to see where is the face of Jesus Christ in what we are doing as the Church.
So, in our parishes and schools, how can we work to see and know Jesus Christ more clearly, to love Jesus Christ more dearly and to follow Jesus Christ more nearly – as the song from the musical Godspell went!
The two wings that enable our schools to fly, with their identity and inspiration, are mission and justice. Justice demands that the schooling we give a child is the best schooling we can provide. A child is a being of potential placed on this earth by God, and we are to do all we can to ensure the gifts of this boy or girl are open to development. It is an injustice of significant degree to fall short in our care for the development of a child who will pass his or her way on earth just once, and who through the schooling given them should be equipped with values and ideals to grow in life to the full.
“Faith in Every Student” has a dual meaning of significance. Firstly, it speaks of the Faith that is instilled and nurtured within students who are enrolled in our schools, as well as the confidence and trust (faith) we all have in our young people to use their gifts and talents and grow to be informed, active citizens and positive contributors to Church and society.
Mission means why we are here: why was this school founded? Mission means how we are living and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus. In a Catholic school there can be but one teacher, and that is Jesus Christ. Go away from that and we are only Catholic in name.
A constant challenge is in the statistics about the disengagement of the young with our worshipping communities at Sunday Mass. We know how some people point their finger at the school when this is raised. They lay onto the school a burden that they do not place on the family. The correct order surely is that the faith should be caught and taught in the home, reinforced in the school, and celebrated in the local parish. It is a three-pronged, not a one-pronged operation.
One principal said to me last year, “Some people look at the school as if it were Stocklands – a one-stop shopping location where you can get all your faith formation – that is skewed!” The proper way is that the faith can be caught and taught in the home by example and practice, reinforced in the school through instruction and experience, and celebrated in the parish church by a worshipping community.
It is simply realistic to note that our parishes and schools have now entered a missionary stage. The Eucharist is the central action of Catholic Christians, and the core action of the Church. We need faith-filled teachers in our classrooms who are active witnesses to the faith: Eucharist and Church engagement cannot be a non-issue for a Catholic teacher in our schools.
Until the mid twentieth century, it was the family, the school and the Church which were the principal formators of values and attitudes. It is different for our present young people who have been described as a product of a turbulent world, children of change who rely heavily on connectedness with each other, even when they are not physically together. Their world of mobiles, internet, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and iPods has helped form a startling world of communication links.
In a world of massive and instant communications and distractions, it is possible never to go beneath the surface, never to go into those deeper places where our humanity registers. Unless there is a reflectiveness that is taught, our young people will never come home to themselves, and may miss the crucial place where God is encountered, the heart within each of us.
Dr William Cavanaugh, an American lay theologian, wrote that, “… the secular cannot be expected to limit itself to the body; it will colonise the soul as well.” So, what is colonising our soul in our times? What is colonising the souls of our young? We face a call to provide an education that goes beneath the appearances, an education for depth, to make what Teilhard de Chardin described as the most difficult of journeys, the journey within, to go to our reflective self, the area of listening to heart and conscience. As James Wilson Hogg once wrote, the beauty of stained glass windows can only be seen from within the Church.
You, who are educators, live in a world these days of NAPLAN and issues affecting numeracy and literacy, and where our school comes on a league table. All those sorts of things are very much part of your preoccupations and rightly so. Yet it is time to look closely at the phenomenon of religious illiteracy amongst our students, and to see what can be done about it.
Religious Education recognises the need to be broader in our approach, to embrace religious formation as well as religious instruction, to recognise that we had to move from the head to the heart. But we still have to ensure that there is a sufficient basis of knowledge about the Church and the faith it professes. I’ll tell you why!
I am sure you have heard this from different parents, and in my position I hear it often. In our schools, we can produce graduates at Year 12 with ATARs that rank around 99.55, 98.90 and so on. Yet one hears from concerned parents, attempting to raise their children in the Faith, the pained observation that their son or daughter at university admission standard ought to know more about the Scriptures; the different emphases in the four Gospels; the sweep of Church history; where the Orthodox come from; why the Church split at the Reformation; what the doctrinal issues were; why missionary movements took place in the sixteenth and nineteenth century; and what promoted them. They know little of the arguments for the existence of God or the bases for the Christian belief that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, and the Catholic teaching about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and the centrality of the Mass. They may know something about Catholic social teaching, but what about moral teaching and the bases for the Catholic position on bioethical issues?
On the person of Jesus, there is an understanding among many of our young people that Jesus is one of the finest people who ever lived – a great teacher, a most admirable person – but there may be little of the grasp that the Incarnation was the turning point of all history and that the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us; that Jesus was not simply a figure of history, but the very centre of history; that the Christian faith is the astonishing conviction that God became human and dwelt among us to be our Saviour.
We read in the Gospel how Jesus promised his Apostles that he would send them the Holy Spirit, who would teach them all truth and help them recall what he had said. This implies that the Apostles had not really grasped the full meaning of his coming; that they had not been able to appreciate what he had done for them and for all of us; that they really did not yet understand. Now the Apostles would have been the first to admit this! Think of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, how they didn’t get it – that Jesus is risen!
Only after the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost did the Apostles begin to understand their part in witnessing to the redeeming work of Christ. The Spirit of truth showed them what Christ’s supreme love on the Cross had done for them, and what their love for others could do, as they took part in Christ’s work of saving the world and enabling the dignity of people. The Holy Spirit taught the Apostles their own value as trusted co-workers of Jesus, their own potential to be good news for others, and the scope of their great challenge to make Jesus Christ known and loved.
That is what the Holy Spirit wants to do for you and me and for our students. The Spirit of Jesus wants us to share in the tremendous love of the Trinity by seeing the good in our fellow men and women. What a context for faith in every student. Genuine Christ-like love makes people good. Generous, kind, compassionate help we extend to others makes you and me better people, and has an effect on everyone around us. Just see what it would do to your school if they had made this Catholic Schools Week “Appreciation Week” at your school –being grateful for what we have and not being tricked into focussing on the hole in the donut, the bit that’s missing.
This year’s “Faith in Every Student” theme for your school was to ensure that every student has the best possible start in life, to develop their full potential as children of God, guided and supported by dedicated teachers and support staff.
The central aim of our Catholic schools is to give Saints to the world, to ensure that each student has the opportunity to grow academically, spiritually and emotionally, while growing physically. Catholic schools celebrate diversity and our schools strive to provide for each student an education that recognises their place in God’s plan of saving us and to foster within them the Gospel teachings of love, compassion, goodness, justice and forgiveness, as the students develop their strengths, their gifts and their abilities and also learn to overcome their weaknesses and deficiencies. In this way, they will be better equipped to make a positive contribution to the Church and to the wider community.
We can be far too critical of one another in an unproductive way, which doesn’t help anyone. If we tear down without building up, nothing will improve. The Apostles were weak and ignorant and selfish, but Jesus built them up by what he did and taught. His example and his critique were constructive. Jesus helped them grow.
So, you and I can be Christ-like by loving others, particularly our students, not just liking them emotionally. We love by seeing the good in each other and building it up. Love has to give, not take away. When we appreciate others with kindly respect, we make them better, as Christ did. By our generosity we make both ourselves better and we make others better. It may take years, but eventually it works. Real Christ-like concern for others is bound to produce much good. See what it did eventually for his Apostles.
“The Spirit of truth who issues from the Father will be my witness” Jesus told them, “and you too will be my witnesses” in a variety of ways. We have a special opportunity.
We all have different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but to the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. But one and the same Holy Spirit produces all of these gifts, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes.
Paul is here stressing the unity of the Church – the Body of which Christ is the Head. The characteristic of a healthy body is that every part in it acts for the good of the whole body. It is a unity in diversity.
I want to express my sincere thanks to our Director of Schools, Mr Peter Turner, for his positive leadership, his Leadership Team, to the Catholic Education Office staff who serve our schools, to the principals, parents and students, to my brother priests and pastors, for the combined work you all do for our Diocese in the field of education.
You represent me well by your competence, your dedication and your commitment to Jesus Christ and his Church and I thank you most sincerely.