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  • At a Cross Roads Again 

    In August 2007 the Bishops of New South Wales and ACT released a joint pastoral letter they chose to call, “Catholic Schools at A Crossroads.” 

    It is an interesting title. The Bishops called it  “A Crossroads”, not “The Crossorads”. They acknowledge by that that there have been crossroads before and that there will be crossroads again.  

    How right they were! 

    The history of Catholic Education in Australia is, in fact, a series of crossroads. With God’s blessing, and the hard work of many, we have been able to negotiate each of these successfully, emerging each time stronger, but different. 

    Our history has been a very concrete expression of our faith in the Resurrection. It is an expression of faith in that challenging, even dark, periods have been encountered before, they have been met and new growth, new life has emerged.  

    Probably the first – and maybe the most important crossroads – occurred in the 1860’s. Catholic schools had existed in Australia, almost from the time of British settlement. These schools were usually staffed by lay people, often with little training but with very big hearts. They were not particularly well organised but they were successful in teaching both religious and secular subjects. And they were funded by government. 

    Those schools, however, were placed under enormous pressure when colonial governments across the country legislated that government funded education was, in future, to be free, compulsory and secular. This was intolerable to Catholics. Led by the Bishops at the time, the Australian Catholic church negotiated this particular crossroads by going alone. Bishops and Parish Priests worked tirelessly to staff those schools with nuns, brothers and priests, often recruited from Europe - especially from Ireland - but with many home grown religious, too. 

    Catholic schools emerged from this huge crisis fundamentally changed, but stronger. 

    It took many decades to negotiate a further crossroads. The “State Aid” debate continued for years. When some funding justice was finally achieved a new relationship with government had to be forged. It was, and continues to be a challenge. But Catholic schools have emerged again changed but again stronger. 

    Then in 1981 a group known as the Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) challenged in the High Court the Australian government’s right to provide funding to Catholic schools. It was a difficult time again, another crossroads. But the DOGS lost their case and again Catholic schools emerged stronger but changed being now more confident in the validity of their position in Australian society. 

    At roughly the same time, religious men and women who had been the backbone of our whole school system began to decline rapidly in numbers. Lay people were required more and more to take roles in classrooms and in school leadership. Again it was a challenging situation that many felt would spell the end of Catholic schools. But the evidence is clear that Catholic schools have again emerged stronger though, again, different. 

    It must be acknowledged that there was an important, often unrecognised, bridging factor at work here. A great number of men and women who had spent time, often many years, as members of religious congregations but had decided that their vocation lay elsewhere, joined the staffs of Catholic schools. They brought with them a deep exposure to Catholic teachings and tradition, a deep knowledge of the story of Catholic education and a clear understanding of the charism that drove our schools. They formed a powerful link between religious and lay staff of schools. Now, by 2011, we are nearing the end of that bridge. 

    But today we face our own new crossroads. We are challenged to form new relationships, yet again, with government as funding increases. But that increase comes with ever greater demands for accountability and ever greater intervention of government in the school activity. 

    We are challenged to redefine ourselves, too, to articulate anew our reason for being.  Fewer of our students’ families are involved in parish life than in years gone by. We are being called to redefine our religious purposes now in terms of mission, of evangelisation. We are called to reach out ever further to those who know but little of Jesus and his church. 

    More immediately now, though not necessarily more importantly, our funding is under critical threat. The Federal government has instituted a review into funding of education across all three sectors (Government, Catholic and Independent). This is known as the Gonski Review. No doubt people will have noted that it is receiving significant media coverage. 

    Our National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC) has prepared a substantial and well argued submission to this review panel. That submission shows clearly that Catholic schools perform consistently at a high level and they do this at a significantly lower cost than do other systems. 

    Yet, as a result of clever campaigning on the part of certain organisations hostile to Catholic schools, the media seems to have convinced a great many people that Catholic schools are presently overfunded!  

    It is easy to demonstrate the facts that demonstrate the success of the Catholic system on schools. Indeed the Commonwealth Government’s own MySchool website does precisely this. It shows that we perform well and it shows that education in the Catholic system is provided at a far lower cost than anywhere else. However, despite these facts it is proving very difficult to convince the electorate. When the Gonski report is presented to the government later this year, those facts will be clear but the politics will not. 

    This will be yet another important crossroads for us. As Catholic schools, as Catholic people, we will be called to rise to this challenge. We will be called to find new ways of being Catholic schools, ways that will see us changed but ever stronger. It has happened in the past, it will happen now, it will happen again in the future. 

    We are facing these and other important and very challenging crossroad experiences now, in 2011. They are not our first crossroads and they will not be our last. We need to have confidence in our own God given gifts and capacities and in the blessing of our God, that we will negotiate these crossroads successfully, emerging, certainly changed, but also stronger. We will be ready to face even more crossroads in the future. Let each one be a Resurrection experience.