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    Let’s Never Take Catholic Schools For Granted

    Catholic schools, it seems, have always been with, or very close to, the heart of every parish community. Sometimes they are so familiar that we do not even see them. It was most interesting to note that during Bishop Prowse’s recent round of regional forums, following the publication of his pastoral letter last year, only four times were Catholic schools mentioned as being an expression of the work of the Holy Spirit in the diocese. Yet, very clearly, they are one of the most powerful manifestations of that Spirit. It seems that they are so familiar to us that they may be taken for granted. It is well, then, to reflect briefly on just how the work of Catholic schools today is a powerful expression of the presence of the Holy Spirit among us, and one that should not be so taken for granted.

    Our very history shows us how Catholics in days gone by have worked to ensure that they had Catholic schools in their communities. Led by committed priests and supported by the extraordinary generosity of so many religious men and women, the “ordinary Catholic parishioner” made enormous sacrifices of time, effort and money to build and support Catholic schools in parishes. That effort has continued, though in different shape. Then it was the political will and the thirst for justice on the part of so many over so many years that have led us to the funding arrangements we now have with governments. We can never take for granted the sacrifices of so many of these extraordinary people who have gone before us.

    In today’s Church, on numbers alone, the work of the Catholic school to promote and continue the mission of the church in education is enormous. Even in our small diocese our 34 primary schools and seven secondary colleges provide quality Catholic education to nearly 16,000 young people. Those 16,000 young people, in turn, have families and for many of these families, the Catholic school is their primary contact with Church, indeed it is often their only one.  What a graced opportunity for evangelisation exists through our schools.  It is truly a work of the Spirit.

    Of course, numbers are one thing, but what is done with those numbers is what matters.

    I am fully aware that there are those in our Catholic community who are concerned that big numbers in Catholic schools do not always translate into numbers in the pews on Sundays. But, it must be remembered that it is parents who are the first educators of their children. It is the parents who have first responsibility for the education of their children in faith. The school can only play a supporting role. It must be remembered, too, that parents and schools can only issue an invitation to young people to respond in faith. They may, or may not, respond to that invitation. We will fervently pray that they do.

    But the fact remains that it is not the role of the Catholic school to ensure that students are Mass attenders. Of course, schools encourage such attendance and participation and rejoice when the invitation is accepted.

    However, as Bishop Prowse has so often pointed out, we all have an evangelising role and Catholic schools carry that role very seriously. They provide quality Catholic education, and quality Catholic education is different from quality secular education. We have the underlying richness of being centred in Christ. Quality Catholic education is rooted in a philosophy of life, and of faith, that places God at the centre and develops a moral and ethical framework that is built on love, not self-centredness. It is built on the belief that we are most fulfilled as human persons when we are most aligned with the person and teachings of Jesus, when we consciously choose to want what is best for the other person, then to seek to do something about that (which I find is a wonderful definition of love). Catholic schools constantly present their curriculum and their pastoral care programs within that framework and are once again, can be seen to be firmly at the core of the Spirit’s work in our diocese.

    There is clear evidence that young people, having been through the Catholic education system, align themselves much more strongly with issues such as social justice than do their counter-parts from secular schools. That message which begins, of course, from home, is clearly being strengthened by Catholic schools. Good things are happening. The Spirit is certainly at work through Catholic schools.

    We must remember too, that Catholic schools reflect the person of Jesus in being open to all. They are open to all who are willing to engage in the Christ-centred work of the Church, even if those words are unfamiliar; they are open to all, even those furthest from the faith, as the Church teaches us. They are open, too, to those who have disabilities, whether physical or intellectual; they are open to those who struggle socially; they are open to those who struggle with behaviour issues; they are open to those who struggle financially.

    That very openness does not come without cost and, indeed, it results in Catholic schools having great struggles of their own to continue to welcome all. But schools do follow the teaching of Jesus and willingly engage in that struggle, again manifesting the work of the Spirit among us. These struggles are rarely seen by those not directly involved with schools, but they are very real struggles indeed.

    We must always keep in mind, too, that Catholic schools are the work of the parish. They do not stand apart. It is never a case of thinking about “school AND parish”, as though they are separate things. The school is as much a part of the work of the parish as the bereavement support team or the liturgy committee or the parish finance council. The school is often the parish’s most effective evangelising tool, reaching many more people, in many more walks of life, than other parish activities are able to do. The school, once again, is a manifestation of the work of the Spirit through the parish.

    There have been some sad but fortunately rare examples recently of poor language being used when people have spoken of the parish “giving” land to the school to build a hall, for example. That represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between parish and school. The school is a work of the parish, not some separate, stand alone organisation. The school will touch people with the message of Jesus whom other parish agencies will never get near.

    I am sure that the Catholic school is valued by our whole Catholic community. It has been with us for many generations of Australians. Perhaps it is taken for granted by some. It should never be.

    We are thankful to God for the gift of Catholic education that has been given us here in Australia. It is widely and enthusiastically supported by our priests and our people. Sometimes, though, it is so familiar that we forget that it is a critically important way in which the Spirit is working among us in our diocese of Sale. Hopefully, next time people are asked to name examples of the work of the Spirit in the Diocese, many more than four people will think of the Catholic school!