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  • Because we are Catholics

    April 2011

    Recently, I came across a thought-provoking statement made about our Catholic church’s work with refugees. The speaker I was listening to said, “we don’t help these people because they are Catholics. Indeed most of them are not. Rather, we help them because we are Catholics.”  I thought that the same principle might apply to our work in Catholic schools, too.

    We have an extraordinary gift to offer to our society, to our world. We have Catholic education. It is a gift that invites people into relationship with God, that invites them to grow in faith, learning and full humanity, wherever they be on their own personal journey. It is a gift that shows what it means to be truly and fully human.

    Of course, we are called first (in Australia, at least) to offer that gift to members of our own Catholic community and we must always be true to that call.

    The gift is offered in its richest form, not through words, but through the experience of a living Catholic community. Very clearly, the Catholic nature of our student body and even more of our staff, needs to be preserved and strengthened. More of that below. 

    In this column, I have often over the years, quoted the Roman document The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium. I quote it again in one of its most confronting statements: (The Catholic School) is not reserved to Catholics only, but is open to all those who appreciate and share its qualified educational project. #16). 

    That certainly reflects the principle with which this article began. Because we are Catholics, we offer to all who appreciate and share its goals the invitation to deepen faith, learning and authentic human growth. 

    Like the disciples in John’s Gospel, we offer the invitation to, “come and see” (John 1:46). I am confident that in our schools, people who do come to see will find a community committed to their Christian life, committed to truly loving those young people for whom they share with parents the awesome responsibility of writing on their very spirits. But let us consider for a moment the words that go before that quotation from the Roman document. The document reminds us that the Catholic school must be, “clearly and decidedly configured in the perspective of the Catholic faith.” What does that mean? I suggest that it means, at its simplest level, the existence of an effective formal program of religious education based on the teachings handed down to us by the Church through the ages. It also means that the spirit of Jesus is alive in the school and can be seen and experienced in the relationships evident there. They are relationships permeated by love, tolerance, respect, generosity, forgiveness and compassion. As a result the Catholic school that is configured in the perspective of the Catholic faith is a place where all can experience peace, joy, hope, justice and love. It is a place of prayer, where God is named and honoured in prayer, in symbol and in ritual. It is a placed imbued with the missionary spirit inviting people from all walks of life, whether Catholic or not, to “come and see.” 

    But we are privileged to offer all of that, not because our students and their families are Catholics, but because we are Catholics. 

    Our own Bishop’s pastoral letter of last year, “Finding Home in Jesus”, reminds us of our fundamental duty to evangelise, to offer to everyone whether Catholic or not, the invitation to come and see. And, he reminds us that “all baptised are called to evangelise.” Catholic schools have the opportunity and the privilege to do this by their very nature. 

    As I suggested above, the effectiveness of this mission is heavily dependent on the strength of the spirit of Catholicism in the community – and that surely is a function in some part at least of the number of Catholic people present in our schools. While it is clear that openness to all who share our vision is a fundamental part of our mission, we have a particular responsibility to Catholic families, to Catholic children. 

    It is disturbing to realise that across Australia (and it is no different in the Diocese of Sale) nearly 50% of Catholic children are in schools other than Catholic schools. How wonderful it would be to bring those young people into our schools, to offer them our gift but also to strengthen and build our essential Catholic nature.

    Yet, schools are relatively powerless to do much about that! Those children are not within the reach of the Catholic school. The school does not know who they are. So where does this information lie? It lies, I suggest, in baptismal registers, in parish censuses in reality. The parish, in fact, is far better placed to engage with those families and to encourage them to send their children to Catholic schools. Who knows how many additional Catholic families may choose a Catholic school for their children if a contact is maintained, if, for example, a card marking the anniversary of baptism is sent by the parish each year to each pre-schooler. Or what impact might be achieved by a visit from the parish to each baptised child just at enrolment time. 

    I suggest that increasing the number of Catholics in our schools is not a task that rests with the schools alone but is one that can be and should be shared with the whole parish community.  We all need to be active in issuing the invitation to “come and see”, because we are Catholics.